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From A’ja Wilson to Han Xu, watch these stars in World Cup final

Team USA’s A’ja Wilson guards China’s Han Xu during the 2022 WNBA season. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

So far during the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, only one team has challenged the United States.

When China clashed with Team USA during group play on Sept. 23, they kept the score closer than any other team, losing 77-63 to a U.S. squad that has defeated its opponents by an average of 39.9 points heading into the gold-medal game.

China has been dominant in its own right, beating all of its opponents, including host Australia in the semifinals.

The two sides will meet at 2 a.m. ET Saturday morning to battle for the world championship, with plenty of star power leading each team. The game will air on ESPN and stream live on ESPN+.

Here are the most dominant Chinese and American players so far.

A’ja Wilson

The WNBA regular-season MVP and Defensive Player of the Year has continued her commanding play after leading the Las Vegas Aces to their first WNBA title.

Just 18 hours after getting off her plane in Sydney, Wilson dropped 20 points against China, and she hasn’t let up since. Wilson has averaged 16.8 points and 8 rebounds per game over her five appearances. In the semifinals, she helped Team USA blow past Canada with a 15-point, 12-rebound double-double.

Wilson is also perfect from the free-throw line, making all 18 of her attempts, and is shooting an efficient 70.2% from the field.

Kelsey Plum

Another Aces player making her mark at the international level, Plum is averaging 15.6 points and 4.4 assists per game through five games in a USA uniform.

Like Wilson, she’s been efficient in scoring, shooting 62.5% from the field, 40% from beyond the arc and 90% from the free-throw line. Plum has also been near a double-double twice, with 19 points and 9 assists against Korea and then 20 points and 7 assists in a matchup with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Breanna Stewart

In case we needed any more evidence as to why she’s about to be the most sought-after WNBA free agent this offseason, Stewart continues to turn in impressive international performances.

She’s averaging 13.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game, doing a little bit of everything for Team USA.

Stewart opened FIBA play by leading her squad past Belgium with 22 points and 4 rebounds. In the semifinal contest with Canada, she had 17 points and 8 rebounds, as well as 3 blocked shots on defense.

Li Meng

Despite having two WNBA players on the roster, Li has stolen the show for China. The 27-year-old, who plays her professional basketball for the Shenyang Army Golden Lions, is leading her team with 16 points per game.

When China faced the U.S. in the group stage, Li played 32 minutes and scored 21 points. She went 3-of-6 from beyond the arc. Li also helped her team get by France in the quarterfinals with 23 points.

Throughout the World Cup, Li has continued her hot shooting from 3-point range, making 40.7% of her attempts.

Han Xu

A name that Liberty fans know well, Han played perhaps her best game of the tournament in the semifinals against Australia.

She had 19 points, 11 rebounds for a double-double, and added in 5 blocked shots on the defensive end. Han also shot 80% from the field (8-10) and made all three of her free-throw attempts. Her monster performance was especially crucial for China as Li Meng did not play due to a reported illness.

Over her seven games for China, Han has averaged 13 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 1.9 blocked shots.

Li Yueru

Though she didn’t get many minutes for the Sky this season, Li is another player with WNBA experience. On the national stage, however, she is playing 17.7 minutes per game for China and making significant contributions.

The 24-year-old is averaging 8.9 points, 7 rebounds and 1.4 assists, while also using her 6-foot-7 frame to make an impact in the paint. Her two best games came in the group stage, when she recorded 13 points and 9 rebounds against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 16 points and 8 rebounds against Puerto Rico.

Reporter’s awkward exchange mars Caitlin Clark’s Fever intro

caitlin clark at indiana fever press conference on april 17
An uneasy interaction between Fever recruit Caitlin Clark and a local reporter has gone viral. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

An Indianapolis Star columnist is apologizing for an uneasy exchange with freshly minted Indiana Fever player Caitlin Clark on Wednesday.

At Clark's introductory press conference with the Fever, reporter Gregg Doyel introduced himself then abruptly formed a heart with his hands. Throughout her career with Iowa, Clark has often flashed heart hands at her family in the stands after finishing a game. The gesture has since become linked to the standout player.

But what ensued between Clark and Doyel was an incredibly awkward interaction, to say the least.

"Real quick, let me do this," Doyel said before making the heart sign at Clark. A composed Clark responded, "You like that?" After Doyel quipped, "I like that you're here," Clark dropped her eyes to the desk and said, "Yeah, I do that at my family after every game."

“OK, well start doing that to me and we’ll get along just fine,” Doyel said in response, to which Clark raised her eyebrows at the reporter, looking visibly uncomfortable. It wasn't the only unsettling comment Doyel made that day, as he later referred to Clark as "that" and "it" when directing a question to Fever coach Christie Sides. Sides appeared similarly thrown off by his choice of words.

As the clip made its way around social media, Doyel faced backlash from both sports fans and fellow members of the media. Much of the criticism centered around whether or not Doyel or another press representative would address an NBA player in the same manner. 

Doyel later apologized via a column entitled "Doyel: Caitlin Clark, I'm so sorry. On Wednesday I was part of the problem." published on the Indianapolis Star's website late Wednesday evening. Referring to his behavior at the earlier press conference, he called his comments "clumsy and awkward."

"Please know my heart (literally and figuratively) was well-intentioned. I will do better," he wrote, noting that he was "devastated to realize I’m part of the problem."

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

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