Led by transfer Lauren Jensen, No. 10 Creighton enjoying role as NCAA Tournament spoiler

Creighton Blue Jays guard Rachael Saunders (13) hugs Creighton Blue Jays guard Lauren Jensen (15) after winning at Iowa.
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The No. 10-seeded Creighton Bluejays will look to add another line or two to the record books this weekend when they make their first Sweet 16 appearance in school history at the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

Making its first tournament start in four years, Creighton advanced out of the second round for the first time in eight appearances with an upset win over No. 2-seed Iowa last Sunday, becoming just the fifth No. 10 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16.

Headlining the Bluejays’ squad is sophomore guard Lauren Jensen, who made the go-ahead 3-pointer with 13 seconds left to beat the Iowa Hawkeyes 64-62 on their own court. However, Jensen wasn’t exactly in unfamiliar territory at Carver-Hawkeye Arena after playing at Iowa last season.

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“Obviously I’m pretty familiar with the arena because I played here all of last year, but I felt like that definitely helped,” she said. “On the flipside, there’s also some nerves with that because I’m wearing a different color this year, but I feel like it did help.”

As a freshman at Iowa last season, Jensen appeared in 17 games and scored 23 total points, while this year at Creighton, she’s made 31 starts and posted a season-high, single-game point total of 23. Twice.

“Right away from summer workouts, this team welcomed me with open arms and made me feel at home and a part of the team, and I’m just so grateful for that,” said Jensen. “To be able to do that with them here today is just so great.”

“Those last few minutes had to be magical and special, and we’re super proud of her and we’re super proud that she’s part of our program,” said Creighton coach Jim Flanery regarding his sophomore transfer.

Flanery said he was impressed right off the bat with Jensen, who would regularly show up for voluntary 6 a.m. practice sessions in the fall.

“The number of times that Lauren was in there was impressive to me,” said Flanery, who holds a 378-252 overall record in 20 seasons at Creighton. “So as a coach, when you have somebody who comes into your program and you’re trying to get to know them, and you see them when you walk in the gym at 6 a.m. and you see somebody who’s got the shooting gun set up and putting up jumpers, that resonates.”

Also key to Creighton’s momentum last weekend – which included a first-round victory over No. 7-seed Colorado – was its resounding defense, which held Iowa sophomore and Division 1 scoring leader Caitlin Clark to a season-low 15 points. The Bluejays finished with a 52-37 advantage on the boards, led by Morgan Maly with 13, and also posted 19 second-chance points to Iowa’s eight.

“Rebounding is a huge focus, not in just this game but in every single game throughout the year,” said Creighton senior guard Payton Brotzki after scoring 13 points Sunday. “Even this morning, we talked about it a lot. Super proud of us for getting that done.”

Creighton looks to spoil another Hawkeye State team’s dance on Friday in Greensboro, N.C., where it will face No. 3-seed Iowa State. The Iowa State Cyclones boast one of the best offenses in the country, ranking No. 2 in three-point field goals made, three-pointers per game and three-pointer percentage, making nearly 39 percent of their attempts. But Creighton stepped up from behind the arc vs. Iowa as well, making 10-of-34 threes (29.41 percent) compared to Iowa’s 5-of-22 (22.7 percent).

No. 10 South Dakota will also be competing in the Sweet 16 after the Coyotes ousted No. 2-seed Baylor in the second round. It marked the eighth win by a double-digit seed in the 2022 women’s basketball tournament, tying a tournament record set in 2018. One more win by either the Creighton or South Dakota will mark just the fourth time in tournament history that a double-digit seed advances to the elite eight.

However, Sweet 16 success would put Creighton on a collision course with No. 1 overall seed and title favorite South Carolina. Tournament simulations by the Washington Post project Creighton has a 34-percent chance to make the Elite Eight, up from the 16-percent chance it was given on Selection Sunday. And while no team seeded worse than No. 3 has won the women’s tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in 1994 (the tournament expanded to include 68 teams for 2022), the Bluejays already see their tournament experience as a win.

“(Coach Flanery) told us before the game that it’s unconditional love no matter what happens, so I think that can be a statement for the whole season,” said Brotzki. “This team truly loves each other unconditionally, and it has been the most fun and also the most successful year that I’ve ever played in basketball. I just think that’s a testament to how we have each other’s backs, how close we are as teammates, and it just translates to the court.”

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Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

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Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”