‘Once-in-a-lifetime player’ Rhyne Howard headlines prospects at 2022 WNBA Draft

Rhyne Howard #10 of the Kentucky Wildcats against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Rupp Arena.
Getty Images
0 Comments

Rhyne Howard heads to the WNBA Draft on Monday as a potential No. 1 draft pick after ending her collegiate career at Kentucky as a two-time SEC player of the year and the program’s leading three-point shooter in history.

The 21-year-old Howard, who hails from Cleveland, Tenn., also tallied a career total 2,290 points – trailing only Valerie Still on UK’s all-time women’s scoring list – and she’s one of only nine players to become a three-time women’s AP First Team All-American. But according to Kentucky head coach Kyra Elzy, what makes the 6-2 guard such a prized player is her adaptability.

“Whoever is smart enough to draft her, they are going to have a talent and she is going to make people better,” Elzy said via Kentucky.com. “She’s competitive. Her basketball IQ is unbelievable. But it’s her versatility at the next level. She’s a 6-2 guard with a great frame. She can play multiple positions and I think in time she will be the face of the WNBA.”

2022 WNBA Draft: Which players opted in, how the WNBA Draft works and more

Howard recorded career averages of 20.1 points (20.5 in 31 games over the 2021-22 season), 6.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 33 minutes per game, but her senior season came to an abrupt halt at the 2022 NCAA Tournament, where sixth-seeded Kentucky suffered an upset loss in the first round to No. 11-seed Princeton, 69-62. But several notable stats will linger long after her final-game performance:

  • Howard scored 30 or more points in 10 career games, including three times this past season.
  • Her career-best scoring game came January 2020 when, as a sophomore, Howard scored 43 points in a road win at Alabama to tie a school record set by Jennifer O’Neill vs. Baylor in December 2013 for the most points scored in a game.
  • Howard was Kentucky’s leading rebounder in 60 of her 114 career games, including 15 of her 31 games as a senior.
  • Her career free-throw average was 77.2 percent, featuring a career-best 80.8 percent during her senior season on her highest volume of free throws attempted (135-of-167 this season).
  • Howard played and started in 114 games over the course of her four seasons, including all 31 games this season. She never came off the bench.
  • She made at least one three-pointer in 99 of her 114 career games, including in 26 of 31 games as a senior.

Undoubtedly, a career highlight came at this year’s SEC Tournament, where Howard scored 18 points in Kentucky’s win over eventual national champion South Carolina for its first conference championship title since 1982. Howard’s on-court exploits, however, are just part of what makes her such a great team member, according to Elzy.

“She’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of player. She’s gifted. But more importantly, what she has done for Kentucky basketball,” Elzy said. “What I’m going to miss is the person. She’s very humble, kind-hearted. I’m going to miss her coming to the office and laying on the couch and trying to see what we’re going to do for practice. But she is a great person and that matters to us in our program.”

Howard’s athletic career started in middle school when she began running cross country at the suggestion of her mother, RJ Avery. At age 12, as a seventh grader, she qualified for the high school state meet but by high school, Howard had given up cross country to focus on basketball. She played varsity as an eighth grader, graduating from Bradley Central High School with 2,662 career points and earning honors as the 2018 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year and Tennessee Miss Basketball.

She picked Kentucky over South Carolina and Purdue, and Howard was the National Freshman of the Year in 2019. As a sophomore she finished second nationally in scoring, averaging 23.4 points per game, and during her junior campaign, she was the only player in the nation to average more 20 points per game with at least 7.3 rebounds per game, 90 assists and 60 steals.

In a personal Instagram post last week, Howard thanked Kentucky’s “Big Blue Nation” and her support network, and also shared her take on her Wildcat career: “I didn’t come to Kentucky to be the school’s second all-time leading scorer, break the 3-point record or be a three-time first-team All-American. I came to Kentucky because I wanted to be surrounded by people that cared more about me as a persona than just what I could accomplish on the basketball court.

“It wasn’t always easy, but every high and every low made me a better player, teammate, friend and person.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: South Carolina defeats UConn to win 2022 national title

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
Getty Images
0 Comments

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)

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

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.
Getty Images
0 Comments

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.”