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WNBA semifinals: For keys to Storm-Aces, look beyond A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart

A’ja Wilson, Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird look on during a game between Las Vegas and Seattle. (Lindsey Wasson/NBAE via Getty Images)

When the No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces and the No. 4 seed Seattle Storm square off Sunday for the opening game of their best-of-five semifinal series, all eyes will be on A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.

And for good reason: The two former No. 1 draft picks (Stewart in 2016 and Wilson in 2018) are the leading candidates in the MVP race, with very similar stat lines. Wilson is averaging 19.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, while Stewart is averaging 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

“Everyone always talks about the matchup between Stewie and I,” Wilson said. “We love it. We get better every single possession we guard each other, so we are going to give the people what they want, which is a good series, and we are going to have some fun while doing it.”

The teams played four times during the regular-season, with Vegas securing three of four victories. And while Stewart and Wilson may be the most eye-catching matchup, it’s far from the only storyline.

“I feel like this matchup with the Storm is going to be good no matter what,” Wilson said. “You have phenomenal players on both sides in this series.”

Here are four keys to the series:

Jewell Loyd

The former Notre Dame guard is one of seven No. 1 draft picks in this semifinal series, and she’s arguably the most important for the Storm.

Loyd has been absolutely dominant against the Aces this season in all but one contest. In three of their meetings, the guard put up 38, 24 and 19 points, at least keeping them within striking distance and once leading them to a victory.

But she isn’t unstoppable, and in the fourth matchup, the Aces managed to hold her to just 1 point in an 89-81 Las Vegas win on Aug. 7.

Loyd already has been crucial to the Storm this postseason, scoring 19 points in Seattle’s first win over the Mystics and 16 in the second. The Game 2 performance was especially important, as Loyd scored 12 of her points in the final five minutes of play to propel her team into the semifinals.

Loyd’s ability to step up in key moments could be the difference for the Storm against the top-seeded Aces this time around.

Chelsea Gray

Gray has been consistent for the Aces all season, but in the second half she’s taken her game to another level. She was key in Las Vegas’ win over Phoenix in the opening round, posting 17 points, four rebounds and four assists in Game 1, and 27 points, eight assists and three rebounds in Game 2.

The Storm saw her heightened play firsthand when she poured in 33 points, nine assists and seven rebounds to lead the Aces past Seattle in Sue Bird’s final regular-season home game.

As Loyd is for Seattle, Gray is the X-factor for Las Vegas. The Aces will need big games from her, while the Storm will seek to slow down the skilled point guard.

Balance

One of the reasons the Aces have been so tough to beat this season is their balance. They have four players who consistently put up big numbers: Kelsey Plum (20.2 points per game), Wilson (19.5), Jackie Young (15.9) and Gray (13.7). That trend showed itself in their four games against Seattle, as the Aces had four double-digit scorers in two games and five in the other two.

One knock on Las Vegas this season has been its lack of bench production, but the team has managed to make it work thanks to consistency in its starting five.

However, with Dearica Hamby (9.3 ppg and 7.1 rpg) out with a knee injury, the Aces are missing a crucial piece. They got past the Mercury without her, but Kiah Stokes will have to perform well in her absence in order to fend off the Storm.

On the other side, Seattle needs to find a way to shut down one of Las Vegas’ big four. If those players are all scoring at a high clip, the Aces become nearly impossible to stop.

Free throws and 2-pointers

The Aces spent a lot of time at the line during the regular-season matchups, with 72 attempts to Seattle’s 52. The Aces have capable scorers at every position, and stopping them is hard enough without giving them extra attempts. Seattle will need to defend without fouling to gain an edge.

These teams are also two of the best in the league at 3-point shooting. The Aces are second in the WNBA with 343 makes on the year, while Seattle slides in at third with 333.

The Storm have made more long-range shots in all four matchups this season, but that means Las Vegas has dominated from inside the arc. The Aces will look to continue that trend while also defending better at the 3-point line, while Seattle needs to find a way to lock up Las Vegas in the paint and the mid-range.

Prediction: Las Vegas in 5

When Wilson says this will be a good series, take her word for it. I’d be surprised if it goes any less than five games, but in the end, the Aces will win out.

The best-of-five WNBA semifinal series between the Storm and the Aces tips off at 4 p.m. ET Sunday.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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