2021 WNBA Playoffs: Storylines to know before the regular season ends

The Connecticut Sun's Brionna Jones #42 hi-fives Jasmine Thomas #5 and Jonquel Jones #35. The Sun have clinched the No. 1 seed heading into the 2021 WNBA Playoffs.
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The 2021 WNBA Playoffs begin next week and this year’s playoff field is nearly finalized.

Of the eight playoff berths, seven have been clinched by the following teams: Connecticut Sun, Las Vegas Aces, Minnesota Lynx, Seattle Storm, Phoenix Mercury, Chicago Sky, Dallas Wings.

UPDATED VIEWING GUIDE: 2021 WNBA Playoffs – Full schedule, seeds, and how to watch

Two teams (Atlanta Dream, Indiana Fever) have been eliminated from playoff contention, while three teams (Washington Mystics, Los Angeles Sparks, New York Liberty) remain in the running for the final playoff berth.

Ahead of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs – which begin on September 23 – here are a few key storylines to know.

Quick refresher: How will the 2021 WNBA Playoffs work?

The playoff format will be the same in 2021 as recent seasons. The top eight teams at the end of the regular season – regardless of conference – qualify for the WNBA playoffs.

A team’s regular season ranking is important: the top two teams receive a bye to the semifinal round, while the third- and fourth-ranked teams receive a bye to the second round. The first and second rounds are single elimination, while the semifinal and final rounds feature a best-of-five format.

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Since the current WNBA playoff format was adopted in 2016, only once (2018) did the two teams that made the best-of-five finals differ from the two top teams at the end of the regular season. That year, the Washington Mystics (ranked third) defeated the No. 2 Atlanta Dream to qualify for the WNBA Finals. (The Mystics then lost in the Finals 3-0 to the top-ranked Seattle Storm.)

Can the Connecticut Sun win the franchise’s first WNBA title?

The Connecticut Sun franchise – established as the Orlando Miracle in 1999 and rebranded as the Connecticut Sun in 2003 – has never won a WNBA title. The team last made the WNBA Finals in 2019, losing to the Washington Mystics three games to two.

But 2021 could be the Connecticut Sun’s year.

The Sun secured the No. 1 seed in the 2021 WNBA Playoffs with a win on Saturday against the Phoenix Mercury. With a win on Wednesday night against the New York Liberty, the Sun have now won 13 straight games – a franchise record.

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During the 2021 WNBA season, the Sun have been guided by Jonquel Jones, a current MVP frontrunner who opted out of the 2020 WNBA season due to Covid-19 concerns. The 6-6 forward leads the league in rebounds per game (11.3) and is fourth league-wide in points per game (19.5).

Brionna Jones, who was the 8th overall pick in the 2017 WNBA draft, is in the running for Most Improved Player. The 25-year-old is fourth in the league in field throw percentage (57.5%).

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The Connecticut Sun also have multiple reasons to celebrate, both on and off the court.

On Wednesday afternoon, guards Jasmine Thomas and Natisha Hiedeman announced their engagement. Later that night, both Thomas and Hiedeman recorded double digit points in the Sun’s 98-69 win over the Liberty.

Also on Wednesday night, Alyssa Thomas made her season debut for the Sun. Just nine months ago, Thomas tore her Achilles tendon while playing in the Czech Republic for ZVVZ USK Praha. She recorded six points and three rebounds in her season debut.

Will the Las Vegas Aces or Minnesota Lynx get the No. 2 seed for the 2021 WNBA Playoffs?

The Las Vegas Aces need one more victory – or a loss from the third-ranked Minnesota Lynx – to lock in the other bye to the semifinal round.

The Aces have been led by the formidable duo of A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage. (For more on the numbers Cambage and Wilson have put up this season, read this piece by Howard Megdal over on FiveThirtyEight.)

Wilson – the 2020 WNBA MVP who made her Olympic debut earlier this summer – is currently fifth in the league in points per game (18.7).

During the final weekend of regular season games, the Minnesota Lynx will be doing a bit of scoreboard watching. The Lynx can finish as high as second (with two wins, plus two Aces losses) or as low as fifth.

Can the Seattle Storm rebound in the WNBA postseason?

The Seattle Storm are the defending WNBA champions, but have struggled in recent weeks, recording a 5-6 record since the Tokyo Olympics.

Earlier this month, Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn said fatigue could be playing a role. Five Storm players competed in Tokyo (Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, and Jewell Loyd representing the United States, Ezi Magbegor and Stephanie Talbot playing for Australia). Stewart, the 2020 WNBA Finals MVP, is out of the Storm’s final two regular season games with a foot injury.

The final weekend of regular season games will see the Storm – along with the Lynx and Mercury – battling in a points race for a first-round bye.

Can the Phoenix Mercury use the WNBA Playoffs to build on their post-Olympic momentum?

The Phoenix Mercury had a rough start to the 2021 WNBA season, due in part to Diana Taurasi missing a majority of early games with a hip injury. The Mercury entered the Olympic break with a 9-10 record.

Since resuming play, however, the Mercury have been nearly unstoppable. The team compiled a 10-game win streak, which was snapped earlier this week by the Connecticut Sun.

Brittney Griner, a seven-time WNBA All-Star, has been playing especially well. She’s second in the league in points per game (20.8), fifth in rebounds per game (9.5), and first in blocks per game (2.0), and is also in the conversation for regular season MVP honors.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

2022 Rivalry Series: USA extends lead to 3-0 over Canada in women’s hockey showcase

Hilary Knight #21 of Team United States reacts after scoring a shorthanded goal in the second period during the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match.
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Hilary Knight had two goals and one assist to lead the U.S. women’s hockey team to a 4-2 win over Canada on Sunday, extending Team USA’s series lead to 3-0 in the seven-game 2022-23 Rivalry Series.

Savannah Harmon and Abby Roque also scored for the U.S., which has notched three consecutive wins against Canada for the first time since 2019. Goalie Nicole Hensley made 22 saves in front of a record-setting crown at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, where fan attendance totaled 14,551.

Marie-Philip Poulin and Sarah Nurse scored for Canada, which captured gold \at both the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September and the Beijing Olympics in February.

Knight has enjoyed a standout 2022-23 Rivalry Series to date, registering six points (three goals, three assists) in the first three games including the game-winning goal in a shootout victory in Game 1 of the series on Tuesday and the game-winning assist in Game 2 on Thursday. Prior to the puck drop in Seattle on Sunday, Knight was presented with a golden stick to commemorate her record-breaking 87th career point in world championship play. Knight became the all-time points leader at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September, when the eight-time world champion recorded one goal and one assist in Team USA’s 12-1 quarterfinal win over Hungary.

Sunday’s matchup between the U.S. and Canada marked the third game of the 2022-23 Rivalry Series and was the third matchup between the two teams in five days. The U.S. came in with a 2-0 series lead following a 2-1 victory on Thursday in Kamloops, B.C., and a 4-3 shootout victory — the first shootout in Rivalry Series history — in Kelowna, B.C., on Tuesday. It also was the first game for the U.S. national team on home soil since Dec. 17, 2021, when the team hosted Canada in St. Louis (Canada won 3-2 in overtime).

The 2022-23 Rivalry Series continues next month with two games in the U.S., set to be played in Las Vegas on Dec. 17 and Los Angeles on Dec. 19.


2022-23 Rivalry Series schedule, results

DATE TIME/RESULT LOCATION NETWORK
Tuesday, Nov. 15 USA 4, CAN 3 (SO) Kelowna, British Columbia NHL Network
Thursday, Nov. 17 USA 2, CAN 1 Kamloops, British Columbia NHL Network
Sunday, Nov. 20 USA 4, CAN 2 Seattle, Washington NHL Network
Thursday, Dec. 15 10 p.m. ET Henderson, Nevada NHL Network
Monday, Dec. 19 10 p.m. ET Los Angeles, California NHL Network
TBD TBD TBD NHL Network
TBD TBD TBD NHL Network

What is the Rivalry Series?

The Rivalry Series was introduced by USA Hockey and Hockey Canada during the 2018-19 season and designed as an annual showcase of the highest level of women’s hockey at various locations in the United States and Canada. The first series comprised three games between the two national teams, with Canada winning 2-1. Team USA took 2019-20 title, winning the expanded five-game series 4-1 and wrapping with an overtime win in the finale in front of a then-record-breaking total of 13,320 fans in Anaheim, California.

Following a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic and preparation for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the Rivalry Series resumed this season with seven games over three months: three in November, two in December and two in February.

The U.S. and Canada have battled in the gold-medal game of six of seven Winter Olympics and 20 of 21 IIHF Women’s World Championship, with the two exceptions being the 2019 World Championship and 2006 Olympics. The Canadian women are the reigning Olympic and world champions.


2022-23 Rivalry Series rewind: USA takes Games 1-2

Game 1 recap: USA 4, CAN 3, SO (Nov. 15): The series kicked off Tuesday with Team USA grabbing a 2-0 lead off goals from Hannah Brandt and Hilary Knight. But Canada battled back with three unanswered goals and held a 3-2 lead with 13 minutes to go in the third. With just 1:29 remaining in regulation, Alex Carpenter tied it for the Americans, sending the game to overtime. The U.S. ultimately won in a shootout, with Knight and Carpenter scoring while U.S. goalie Nicole Hensley made two key saves.

Game 2 recap: USA 2, CAN 1 (Nov. 17): Canada was first to get on the board Thursday when Marie-Philip Poulin capitalized off a penalty shot opportunity in the second period, but USA’s Kendall Coyne Schofield knotted the score just 1:12 later. Alex Carpenter scored the go-ahead tally with 6:36 remaining in the third to give the U.S. a 2-1 win and a 2-0 series lead. U.S. goalie Maddie Rooney recorded 19 saves in net.


Who’s playing in the 2022-23 Rivalry Series?

Team USA’s roster — led by coach John Wroblewski — for the November Rivalry Series games features 23 players, 16 of whom were part of the silver medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship in August:

  • Hannah Brandt (Vadnais Heights, Minn.)
  • Alex Carpenter (North Reading, Mass.)
  • Kendall Coyne Schofield (Palos Heights, Ill.)
  • Jincy Dunne (O’Fallon, Mo.)
  • Aerin Frankel(Chappaqua, N.Y.)
  • Rory Guilday (Minnetonka, Minn.)
  • Savannah Harmon (Downers Grove, Ill.)
  • Nicole Hensley (Lakewood, Colo.)
  • Megan Keller (Farmington Hills, Mich.)
  • Amanda Kessel (Madison, Wis.)
  • Hilary Knight (Sun Valley, Idaho)
  • Kelly Pannek (Plymouth, Minn.)
  • Abby Roque (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.)
  • Hayley Scamurra (Getzville, N.Y.)
  • Maddie Rooney (Andover, Minn.)
  • Lee Stecklein (Roseville, Minn.).

Team Canada’s 23-player roster, selected by coach Troy Ryan and director of hockey operations Gina Kingsbury, features 16 players who were on the gold medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship and the 2022 Beijing Olympics (Canada beat , including:

  • Erin Ambrose
  • Kristen Campbell
  • Emily Clark
  • Ann-Renée Desbiens
  • Renata Fast
  • Brianne Jenner
  • Jocelyne Larocque
  • Emma Maltais
  • Emerance Maschmeyer
  • Sarah Nurse
  • Marie-Philip Poulin
  • Jamie Lee Rattray
  • Ella Shelton
  • Laura Stacey
  • Blayre Turnbull
  • Micah Zandee-Hart

Rivalry Series history

Following Sunday’s victory, the U.S. holds a 6-2-1-2 (W-OTW-OTL-L) record over Canada all time in the Rivalry Series. Canada won the 2018-19 Rivalry Series with a 2-0-0-1 record, while the U.S. won the 2019-20 Rivalry Series with a 3-1-1-0 record.

2019-20 Rivalry Series results

DATE RESULT LOCATION U.S. PLAYER OF THE GAME
Dec. 14, 2019 USA 4, CAN 1 Hartford, Connecticut Alex Cavallini
Dec. 17, 2019 USA 2, CAN 1 Moncton, N.B. Alex Carpenter
Feb. 3, 2020 CAN 3, USA 2 (OT) Victoria, B.C. Hilary Knight
Feb. 5, 2020 USA 3, CAN 1 Vancouver, B.C. Katie Burt
Feb. 8, 2020 USA 4, CAN 3 (OT) Anaheim, California Megan Bozek

2018-19 Rivalry Series results

DATE RESULT LOCATION
Feb. 12 USA 1, CAN 0 London, Ontario
Feb. 14 CAN 4, USA 3 Toronto, Ontario
Feb. 17 CAN 2, USA 0 Detroit Michigan

Atthaya Thitikul takes LPGA rookie-of-year honors in stride ahead of Tour Championship

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand smiles after the birdie on the 6th green during the second round of the TOTO Japan Classic.
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To say that Atthaya Thitikul has enjoyed a breakout rookie LPGA season is a bit of an understatement, but keeping things low-key is exactly how 19-year-old “Jeeno” likes it.

As the 2022 season concludes this week at the CME Group Tour Championship, Thitikul has already captured two LPGA titles, held the No. 1 spot in the world rankings and collected the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year honors. But the current world No. 2 displays a wise-beyond-her-years ethos when she says what she’s most proud of this season is her mindset.

“[I’m]19 years old — I think I’m still young to handle all the things that I have now,” Thitikul told On Her Turf ahead of this week’s season finale in Naples, Fla. “I didn’t say that I handled it well, but I’ve just said that I think I can handle it. I can do it. And yeah, it’s turned out to be pretty good this year.”

To keep herself in check, the Thailand native keeps her philosophy posted on her Instagram profile, which reads, “Be you, be happy and everything will be fine.” Thitikul, who on Oct. 31 joined 18-time LPGA winner Lydia Ko as the only players in tour history to reach No. 1 before their 20th birthday, said she took stock of poor performances on the golf course and found they all had one thing in common: She wasn’t being herself.

“I didn’t have fun,” she says of those unsatisfactory rounds. “I was expecting a lot of results on the golf course, not really talking, not really enjoying it. So I think being myself, have fun, keep smiling, keep laughing and talking with other players or talking with my caddie, joking around — I think it’s the best that I can do.”

Golf has always been fun for Thitikul, who grew up in northeast Thailand and was introduced to the sport at age 6 through her father and grandfather, both of whom were not golfers themselves but recognized the opportunity that golf might provide. Thitikul teases that her grandfather was enamored with Tiger Woods, but after her first golf experience with a professional in Bangkok, she was hooked, too.

“They asked me when I finished practicing, do I like it? And I say, ‘Yeah, I do.’ Because [there were] a lot of friends and when I practice, it seemed fun and it seemed not like other sports that I have been watching on TV,” she recalls.

Thitikul’s ascent to the top of her sport was swift: In February 2017, just three days after her 14th birthday, she made her first LPGA tournament appearance at the Honda LPGA Thailand and finished 37th out of 66 players. Just five months later, Thitikul made headlines when she became the youngest person ever to win a professional golf tour event at age 14 years, 4 months and 19 days old, winning the Ladies European Thailand Championship on the Ladies European Tour (LET).

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For three more years, Thitikul resisted turning professional, racking up multiple international amateur victories and plenty of tour experience, notching her first LPGA top-10 finish in March 2018 at the HSBC Women’s World Championship (T-8) and earning low amateur honors that same year at two majors, the ANA Inspiration (T-30) and Women’s British Open (T-64). The following year, she won the Ladies European Thailand Championship for the second time in three years, earned low amateur honors at the British Open (finishing T-29) for the second straight year and was No. 1 on the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking.

In her first year as a pro, during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, Thitikul broke through for her first professional win in July at the Thai LPGA Championship. She finished the season with five Thai LPGA wins and topped the money list.

Thitikul moved to the LET in 2021, winning the Czech Ladies Open in June, and just a month later she moved into the top 100 on the world rankings for the first time at No. 89. She finished 2021 with two wins, three runner-ups and nine additional top-10 finishes, securing the LET Order of Merit and Rookie of the Year titles and becoming just the fourth player to win both awards in the same season.

After finishing third at LPGA Qualifying School to earn her card for 2022, Thitikul didn’t miss a beat in her meteoric rise this season. She posted two top-10s in her first four starts before striking a staff deal with Callaway, which she followed up by winning her first LPGA title in March at the JTBC Classic. She carded an 8-under 64 in the final round to force a playoff and Nanna Koerstz Madsen on the second extra hole. She earned her second LPGA title in September at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, tying the tournament record of 61 in the second round and beating Danielle Kang in a playoff.

As for the pressure of being a teen phenom, Thitikul admits she can’t ignore it but has figured out how to turn it around to her advantage: “It’s still so hard because I think as players want to be on top and we put the pressure on ourselves, and there’s a lot of eyes on us. … But at the same time, it’s kind of like you couldn’t win every week, you couldn’t have a good day every day. It’s golf. I like to think of pressure as a challenge. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I think of it as challenging.”

Away from the golf course, Thitikul enjoys spending time with friends, watching Korean television dramas and indulging in Asian food (Chinese and Korean are favorites). Although she doesn’t have a pet, she says she’s a dog person, and prefers the mountains to the beach, as she loves to hike.

But don’t expect too much lounging, hiking or other non-golf activities on Thitikul’s itinerary after this season wraps on Sunday.

“This offseason, we have a lot of work to do,” she says.” There are a lot of things I still have to learn – not just for next year but for [beyond.] … But hopefully next year, it’s going to be nice and good for me as well. I really want to have a major win in my career. I don’t know if it’s going to happen next year, but hopefully.”