LAS VEGAS (AP) — A’ja Wilson had 24 points and 14 rebounds, Jackie Young scored 21 points and the Las Vegas Aces beat the Connecticut Sun 89-81 on Tuesday night in a battle of the top teams in each WNBA conference.
Under head coach Becky Hammon, Las Vegas (9-1) won its seventh straight game for the best 10-game start in team history.
The Aces led 50-42 at halftime after Chelsea Gray stole it and raced to the other end for a buzzer-beating layup. The Aces had three players in double figures by halftime. Young had 15 points, Kelsey Plum added 13 and Wilson secured a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Gray also completed a three-point play with 11.9 seconds left in the third quarter for a 72-59 lead and her four-point possession, after Alyssa Thomas’ technical foul, made it 76-63.
Connecticut went on a 14-2 run to get within 87-79 with a minute to play, but the Aces put their starters back in and Wilson scored in the paint.
Plum finished with 18 points and seven assists and Gray scored 13 points for Las Vegas (9-1).
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.”
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.”
The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and AngelaStanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly Korda, Lydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.
This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.
How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA
Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.
Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA
Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:
No. 2 Nelly Korda
No. 4 Lydia Ko
No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
No. 6 Brooke Henderson
No. 7 Lexi Thompson
No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan(Michelle)Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and AveryZweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.
Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA
Jin Young Ko (South Korea)
Angela Stanford (USA)
So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
Cheyenne Knight (USA)
Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
Sung Hyun Park (South Korea)
Haru Nomura (Japan)
Last time at The Ascendant LPGA
South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.
It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.
More about Old American Golf Club
Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by TrippDavis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.