Las Vegas Aces lock up No. 1 seed with win over Seattle Storm in season finale

Chelsea Gray #12 of the Las Vegas Aces handles the ball during the game against the Seattle Storm.
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The Las Vegas Aces wrapped their regular season on a satisfying note Sunday, handing a 109-100 defeat to the Seattle Storm in Sue Bird’s final WNBA regular-season game and locking up the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

The Aces also won the Commissioner’s Cup for best regular-season record, ending at 26-10 and finishing with a four-game win streak that included an 89-78 win over defending WNBA champion Chicago on Thursday. But first-year Aces’ coach Becky Hammon has her eyes squarely focused on the post-season, which kicks off Wednesday in Las Vegas with a first-round three-game series vs. the eighth-seeded Phoenix Mercury.

“We took care of a regular season, but we didn’t come here to win the regular season,” Hammon told reporters after the game. “We want to win the playoffs and position ourselves to be able to do that. And, you know, things like (homecourt advantage) will definitely be advantageous for us for sure.”

A raucous crowd that included NBA players Chris Paul and Devin Booker was on hand to witness a career-high performance from Chelsea Gray, who poured in 33 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. Three other players scored in double digits, including Kelsey Plum, who had 23 points with seven of them coming in the final minute of the game. A’Ja Wilson added 25 points and 10 rebounds, while Riquna Williams scored 11 points.

“She’s locked in,” Wilson said about Gray. “When the head of our snake is locked in, it trickles down. We need her to make those big buckets. We know she’s capable of doing it, so I’m glad she was able to showcase in front of a great crowd to end the regular season.”

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Hammon noted that she’s seen a turnaround in her team since the All-Star break, after which they’ve gone 11-3.

“I think (it’s) the buy-in at the defensive end,” she explained. “Understanding how to compete and compete for each other. When I watched them play last year, they had people go rogue at times, and you can’t be a great team with people who are just going to try to do it themselves.

“And I think the buy-in factor has been that they’ve bought into each other — even contractually. I’m like, ‘You’ve literally made money investments in each other by taking less money so we can keep everybody together.’ So that trust factor just continues to grow, and once you get that, I think you can get something special.”

That special sauce translated into a new line for the history books on Sunday, when Plum and Wilson became the first two teammates in WNBA history to record more than 700 points each in a single season. Wilson finished with 703 points, while Plum recorded a franchise-record 726 points.

Additionally, the Aces finished with a franchise-record scoring average, averaging 90.4 points per game and becoming just the third team in WNBA history to average 90 or more points in a season (Phoenix holds the other two records, averaging 93.9 in 2010 and 92.8 in 2009). Las Vegas’ 26 wins also marked the most in a season in franchise history, breaking the record of 24 shared by the 2008 Silver Stars and 2021 Aces.

Also recording a career-best was Seattle’s Jewell Loyd, who scored a career-high 38 points that included 8-of-14 three-pointers. Breanna Stewart added 21 points and 15 rebounds, and Gabby Williams scored 11 points.

“Locked in from the jump,” said Seattle coach Noelle Quinn regarding the 28-year-old Loyd. “I think offensively, she was getting to her spots, and she was knocking down the open ones. And, you know, Jewell sees a lot of different defenses, and so when she’s able to get free and have the shots and the looks that she did, when she knocks them down, she’s deadly.”

Seattle, which finished 22-14, had already locked in the No. 4 seed and will open the playoffs at home against the No. 5 Washington Mystics on Thursday. But Quinn noted first order of business will be “just cleaning some stuff up,” namely turnovers, of which the Storm had 18.

“The live-ball ones – you can’t have them,” said Quinn. “At least if we’re gonna turn the ball over, they have to take it up inside so we can set our defense. But that was what that was — careless with the ball and not being poised. We’ve got to eliminate those, especially if it’s going to be a possession-by-possession game.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2022 WNBA Playoffs – Qualified teams, playoff format, game schedule and more

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.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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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 Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia 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 Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.


Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

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 Tripp Davis 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.