Storm debut among memorable milestones for Breanna Stewart

Labelled “the LeBron James of women’s basketball” by Kelsey Plum, an All-American with the Washington Huskies, the Seattle Storm are hoping that Breanna Stewart can emerge as a franchise player and restore the championship hopes for a loyal fan base. In addition to her scoring prowess, Stewart is also a solid playmaker, as evidenced by her 300 career blocks and 300 career assists, the only NCAA player to do so. As a side note, she was also the only competitor to be recognized as the Final Four most outstanding player four times.
As Stewart made her preseason debut with the Storm, gracing the courts of the WNBA for the first-time ever, there was a tinge of irony. Former Huskies teammate Moriah Jefferson, the second pick overall in this year’s WNBA Draft was opposing Stewart, as a member of the Phoenix Mercury.

The WNBA Draft was a watershed moment for the league and the Huskies. With the draft launching the celebration of the WNBA’s 20th season, it was only fitting that the Draft was held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. Holding the first overall pick for the second consecutive year (the Storm selected Jewell Loyd in 2015), the Storm did not surprise, selecting Stewart. Of note, Stewart became the fifth UConn alum taken first overall in WNBA Draft history. The others in this remarkable class include Maya Moore (2011), Tina Charles (2010), Diana Taurasi (2004) and Sue Bird (2002).

Following Stewart, San Antonio grabbed Jefferson Moriah Jefferson while Morgan Tuck went third overall to the Connecticut Sun, allowing her to stay in close proximity to her Huskies glories. It marked the first time in WNBA draft history (and in professional sports) that three players from the same school represented the top three picks. As a side note, the 2002 WNBA Draft saw Huskies players selected first, second, fourth and sixth overall.

This titanic trio also hold the rare distinction of having won the Final Four in every season of their NCAA careers, another historic first. It was a fitting end to their glorious collegiate careers, propelling the Huskies into one of the greatest dynasties in American sporting history. Except for the likes of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton with the UCLA Bruins, Stewart may be the most accomplished basketball player in the history of NCAA basketball, capturing three straight Player of the Year Awards, an unprecedented achievement.
In her WNBA debut, Stewart managed 29 minutes of playing time, logging 11 points and a solid eight rebounds, although Phoenix that would prevail. With 3,271 fans at Key Arena witnessing her debut, it was Stewart’s first loss on a basketball court since November 28, 2014.

While the Storm had a solid first half, a 36-28 lead evaporated as the Mercury enjoyed an 11-0 run. Loyd would tie the score at 39-39 at halftime. Considering that Sue Bird was inactive in the second half, the Mercury outscored the Storm in both quarters (20-14 in the third, 22-20 in the fourth), grabbing the W. Compounding matters was a lack of on-court chemistry between Loyd and Stewart, a key challenge for head coach Jenny Boucek to overcome. The leap to the professional ranks became a sobering reality, as winning, something so easily attained at the University of Connecticut could not be taken for granted in the WNBA.

One of the benefits of joining the Storm is the fact that Stewart is joined by another Huskies legend. Entering her 15th WNBA season, Sue Bird led the Storm to WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010, complemented by 10 straight postseason berths. While both represent Huskies pride with the Storm, the two will also get the opportunity to be teammates twice before the WNBA season expires.

In addition to being part of the Seattle Storm’s roster, both were named to the US national team that shall compete at the 2016 Rio Summer Games. Having already won three gold medals in Summer Games play, Bird will be looking for a fourth, as this will likely be the final Games of her storied career.

While Rio represents the first Summer Games for Stewart, she will be joined by a couple of other celebrated first-timers, including Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. At the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Stewart donned the US jersey in a silver medal effort, suffering an upset to fellow Husky Kia Nurse and the host Canadian team in an emotional gold medal match.

Gold is a strong possibility to be the color of choice in the aftermath of Rio for Stewart et al. With Huskies coach Geno Auriemma serving as the US head coach (he was also the bench boss at London 2012), a second championship in 2016 for Auriemma and Stewart would only add to the legendary legacies that the two have forged in four fantastic years with the Huskies.

Meanwhile, Stewart’s focus shall be on bringing the Storm back into contention. Despite opening her WNBA career with a loss, Stewart has the talent and the tenacity to ensure that the wins will outnumber the losses. A rematch with the Mercury on Mother’s Day shall prove to be a key test for Stewart.

Another element of intrigue in the preseason shall include a contest the followigtn week against the Los Angeles Sparks. Of note, the Sparks selected Syracuse University star Brianna Butler in the Draft. Not only did Stewart grow up in North Syracuse, but her fourth straight Final Four title came against Syracuse. Undoubtedly, emotions will run high for both.

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Breanna Stewart lands on Sports Illustrated cover as she looks to win fourth Final Four tourney

For the second time in less than six weeks, a female athlete graces the cover of Sports Illustrated, signs of positive growth. Following in the path of Ronda Rousey, who graced the cover of the SI Swimsuit Edition in mid-February, Connecticut basketball icon Breanna Stewart lands on the cover (dated March 22, 2016). As a side note, it represents her second appearance on a cover, as she was on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated on March 14, 2014.

Featuring several collectible covers as part of SI’s March Madness preview, Stewart is the only female player to gain the cover treatment. The other athletes include senior forward Brice Johnson from the Tar Heels, Buddy Hield on the Oklahoma cover and Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff. Stewart is part of Sports Illustrated’s preview coverage of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, which sees the Huskies seeded number 1 in the tournament (for the tenth consecutive year) along with a top ranking in the AP Polls. It was a fitting honor for Stewart to be recognized with such a sporting milestone as she looks to end her NCAA career on a historic note.

StewartSICover

Destined to be the first pick overall in the 2016 WNBA Draft, she is not the only Huskies superstar that is poised to become a first-round pick. Along with Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, each has a date with destiny as they aim to become the first-ever players to capture an unprecedented four NCAA Final Four championships in a career. In their combined careers wtih Connecticut, they have amassed an astonishing 145-5 record, which includes an undefeated mark of 18-0 in the NCAA tournament.

Hailing from North Syracuse, New York, Stewart’s 2014 appearance on the cover marked the eighth time that Huskies nationally renowned women’s basketball program gained such prestige. With astounding career marks including 2,554 points (top ten all-time in Huskies lore) and 1,113 rebounds, she has also dished out 404 assists while terrorizing opposing offenses with 395 blocked shots. Complementing her three Final Four titles is the fact that she was named the Most Outstanding Player all three times.
The only male player to reach such heights was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, accomplishing the feat for UCLA.

Favored to repeat once again as the winner of the Associated Press Player of the Year, the Naismith Trophy, the Wade Trophy Winner, John R. Wooden Award and USBWA Player of the Year honor, Stewart’s legacy in the game is secure. While a fourth championship would definitely earn another deserved cover spot, one could also argue that she would establish herself as an early favorite for the Sportsperson of the Year Award.

Becky Hammon inducted into the New York Liberty Ring of Honor

In the aftermath of an historic NBA Summer League championship with the San Antonio Spurs, Becky Hammon’s career went full circle. As her WNBA roots can be traced back to the New York Liberty, where her playing career began, the club welcomed her on August 3 as they hosted Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm.

Honored by the Liberty during an emotional halftime ceremony (which saw the Liberty hold a 36-35 lead against the Storm), Hammon graciously acknowledged the fans and the organization, recognizing the role that the Liberty played in the beginning of her professional basketball odyssey. Among the gifts that were presented to Hammon, she was the recipient of flowers, a commemorative ring and a painting that was actually created during the ceremony.

During her rookie campaign, Hammon would compete in the 1999 WNBA Finals against the Houston Comets. Before her career with the Liberty reached its end in 2006, two more Finals appearances followed. Second overall in franchise history in both games played and three-pointers, she currently sits third in franchise scoring.

In 2007, Hammon would join the San Antonio Silver Starz of the WNBA’s Western Conference, also appearing with the Russian roster at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. After her WNBA career came to an end due to injury in 2014, she extended her career with a historic appointment as a member of Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff. Serving with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, Hammon became the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.

Defeating the Storm by a 78-62 mark, led by Tina Charles’ 29 points, the 10,682 fans in attendance witnessed history more than once. In addition to Hammon’s honor, Storm superstar Sue Bird made her presence felt. After the Liberty went on a 13-0 run to begin the third period, Bird nailed a three pointer at the 4:47 mark. The three pointer made Bird the first woman in WNBA history to score 5,000 career points and dish out 2,000 career assist. Coincidentally, Bird’s former teammate, Swin Cash (who both played together) with the University of Connecticut and the Storm, was on the floor for the Liberty when the historic basket was made.

Women’s basketball legends part of coaching roles with NBA Summer League

While Becky Hammon made history as the first female head coach in NBA Summer League competition, she was not the only women’s basketball star involved in coaching. Joining Hammon was two-time Summer Games competitor Nancy Lieberman, along with Lindsey Harding.

Of note, Lieberman once served on the coaching stint of the WNBA’s Detroit Shock. Known affectionately as Lady Magic, the Old Dominion legend also played in one game with the Shock, competing at 50 years young. The WNBA is a common trait among all three, as each has played on its hardcourt.

Serving on the Sacramento Kings’ coaching staff in Summer League play, it may be the springboard for greater opportunities to come for Lieberman. During the 2014-15 NBA regular season, Kings head coach George Karl had faced questions concerning the possibility of Lieberman joining his staff.

Karl had indicated interest in Lieberman as a candidate, should his coaching staff change in the summer. Declaring her a quality basketball person, such a potential hire would join Hammon as only the second woman to serve in a full-time capacity as an NBA female assistant coach. During the summer of 2014, Hammon was hired by San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.

In addition to experience with the Shock, Lieberman possesses a background in coaching men’s basketball. She became the first woman to coach a men’s pro team when she took the helm of the NBA Development League’s Texas Legends (affiliated with the Dallas Mavericks) in 2009. Currently, she works as a TV analyst for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. As a side note, she also played alongside men in the former United States Basketball League and was a member of the Washington Generals, who toured with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Working as a guest assistant with the Toronto Raptors at Summer League was Lindsey Harding. No stranger to the Raptors, she was in observance at the Toronto Raptors’ training camp in 2014.Held in very high regard, Harding earned praise from Raptors head coach Dwayne Casey.

Declaring that she has the potential to be a head coach in the NBA one day, Casey was very impressed with Harding’s knowledge and ability to communicate with players. It was also a skill that shone through in Summer League play as Hammon helped the Spurs gel into a championship unit.

Considering that Summer League play (and to a degree Development League play) is meant to cultivate talent and allow undrafted free agents and draft picks to showcase their talents, it is only fitting to allow coaches the same opportunity. In opening the doors of opportunity for accomplished and qualified WNBA talent such as Hammon, Harding and Lieberman, the NBA has once again set a standard, acknowledging the growing role and impact of women in sport.

Becky Hammon builds on basketball legacy with NBA Summer League championship

From the outset, Becky Hammon had made history before the opening tip-off of the NBA’s Summer League Championship Game. Having made history as the first female assistant coach in NBA history (she served under Gregg Popovich’s staff with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014-15), she would build on such a legacy by serving as the first female head coach in Summer League play.

Leading the San Antonio Spurs prospects and draft picks into Summer League play, Hammon’s tutelage resulted in a 93-90 victory against the Phoenix Suns in the championship game. A key factor in the victory for San Antonio was the fact that Phoenix committed 18 turnovers. The loss compounds frustrations that Phoenix has already endured at the hands of San Antonio, as they acquired prized free agent LaMarcus Aldridge.

Although Hammon becomes the first female head coach to win a Summer League title, an encouraging sign was that two other WNBA stars were coaches as well. Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman-Cline was part of the Sacramento Kings coaching staff, while the Toronto Raptors also opened their doors to Lindsay Harding on its coaching staff.

During the 17-day long Summer League season, the fact that the players respected Hammon, in addition to being attentive and responding positively to her feedback and guidance, was testament to the growing role of women in coaching. Although San Antonio lost their opening game against the New York Knicks, the club bounced back to win five consecutive games.

Reputed as a “player’s coach”, she was quick to acknowledge the hard work of her team during the acceptance of the championship trophy. During the locker room ceremonies, she was the recipient of a Gatorade bath, obligatory among all championship coaches throughout sport.

As Hammon noted how the team truly began to come together over the last three to four games of Summer League play, she is equally deserving of the credit. Taking into account that Summer League play features a blend of draft picks, D-League prospects and undrafted free agents with no familiarity, the lack of chemistry is a significant challenge for any coach to overcome.

One player who is poised to benefit from Hammon’s guidance is Jonathon Simmons, whose 23 points topped all scorers. Named MVP of the Summer League’s championship game, he was signed to a one-year guaranteed contract by San Antonio. As a side note, he spent the 2014-15 season with their D-League Affiliate.

Canada upsets US to capture historic gold medal in women’s basketball at Pan Am Games

With a gold medal on Monday night, the Canadian women’s basketball team contributed two significant milestones. Of note, it continued host country Canada’s streak of at least one gold medal in every day of play. Perhaps more importantly, it marked the first time ever that Canada’s women claimed a gold medal in Pan Am Games basketball.

After one quarter of play, the Americans enjoyed a 23-13 lead. Benefitting from the presence of University of Connecticut superstars Breanna Stewart (the favorite to go first overall in the 2016 WNBA Draft) and Moriah Jefferson, they could not have foreseen the Canadian contingent assembling 10 unanswered points, changing the tempo of the game.

Defeating the United States by an 81-73 count, Kia Nurse played the game of her career, logging 33 points, while grabbing five rebounds and dishing out three assists. During the second period, Nurse would steal the ball and dish an assist, giving Canada their first lead of the game, 31-30. With a 36-36 draw at halftime, Nurse propelled the Canadians to unprecedented heights in the second half.

At one point, the United States faced a 17-point deficit as the sold-out crowd at Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre (inside Toronto’s iconic Maple Leaf Gardens) was jubilant with pride. Despite the home court advantage, Canada saw their lead diminish to 11 points as the fourth period began.

Additional heroics were supplied by Natalie Achonwa, who returned to the Canadian roster after suffering a torn ACL last year. Supplying 13 points, her return helped Canada accomplish five wins in five nights. Other opponents that Canada vanquished included the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela. Providing a solid performance on dfense, Tamara Tatham also managed 10 points.

Both Achonwa and Nurse would help put the game out of reach against the US. Hanging on to a five-point lead with only 18 seconds remaining, Achonwa converted on a free throw, while Nurse followed with two of her own, extending said lead to eight points. When Nurse was at the free throw line, excited fans were chanting “M-V-P”. With under four minutes left, Nurse had to be carried off the court due to a collision. The fans gave her a standing ovation, energizing her to return to the court.

Of note, Nurse comes from a very athletic family. Her brother Darnell was a first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, while her cousin Sarah plays hockey with the Wisconsin Badgers program. Sarah has also experienced the jubilation of donning the Maple Leaf, playing for the U18 Canadian women’s hockey team. Their uncle Donovan McNabb was a former quarterback in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins.

Qualification for the 2016 Rio Summer Games shall begin in August. The Canadians shall hope for the benefit of home court advantage as the FIBA Qualifying Tournament takes place in Edmonton.

Inspirational basketball player Lauren Hill earns posthumous honor with ESPY Award

Earning the ESPY Award for Best Moment, Lauren Hill’s courage in fighting an inoperable brain tumor represented the essence of determination and perseverance. During a video tribute that featured commentary by NBA Finals champion Steph Curry, the powerful emotions were akin to Jim Valvano’s powerful speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards, as he spoke of his own struggles with cancer.

Only 19 when she was diagnosed with the tumor, identified as diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, it did not hinder her dreams of playing NCAA basketball. Earning the opportunity to play for Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, an NCAA Division III school; her illness only worsened.

Hill was honored by Pat Summitt with the the Pat Summitt Most Courageous award by the board of directors of the United States Basketball Writers Association. (Image obtained from: http://www.usatoday.com)

Hill was honored by Pat Summitt with the the Pat Summitt Most Courageous award by the board of directors of the United States Basketball Writers Association. (Image obtained from: http://www.usatoday.com)

While Hill participated in practices with the team, the chance to play just one game was graciously allowed. With the NCAA moving a game against Hiram College to November 2, 2014, ensuring Hill was healthy enough to play.

With Xavier University showing remarkable empathy by allowing the game to be played in their 10,000 seat facility, it evolved into an event that made headlines. Not only did tickets for the game sell out in less than an hour, she received gifts from NBA superstar LeBron James. It was only fitting that he was in attendance at the ESPY Awards. As a side note, Hill would play in three more games.

Before losing her battle to cancer, Hill was honored with an appearance on the famous Wheaties box (Image obtained from: http://www.people.com/article/lauren-hill-wheaties-box)

Before losing her battle to cancer, Hill was honored with an appearance on the famous Wheaties box (Image obtained from: http://www.people.com/article/lauren-hill-wheaties-box)

Hill’s courageous effort resulted in $1.5 million raised towards cancer research. Her legacy was akin to Yale Bulldogs ice hockey competitor Mandi Schwartz, whose search for a bone marrow donor resulted in an admirable effort that raised awareness of the disease.

At the ESPY Awards, Hill’s parents accepted the posthumous honor on her heroic behalf. Her mother, Lisa Hill, encouraged the audience and television viewers to believe in the possibility of achieving one’s dreams. She also thanked everyone who helped made her late daughter’s dreams come true.