Chicago Sky ‘laser focused’ ahead of WNBA title defense, first-round vs. New York Liberty

Candace Parker of the WNBA's Chicago Sky dribbles the basketball down the court
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As the No. 2-seeded Chicago Sky embark on their bid to become the first franchise to repeat as WNBA champions in 20 years, All-Star guard Kahleah Copper says being the defending champs provides an advantage when they tip off their first-round, best-of-three series Wednesday vs. the No. 7-seeded New York Liberty.

“We know how hard it is to win in the playoffs,” Copper, the 2021 WNBA Finals MVP, told media on Tuesday. “I think we’re laser focused. It’s a different setup – like, no, it’s not a single-elimination game, but our sense of urgency still has to be there. So, I think we’re trying to lock in on that and really locking in on how we’re starting games.”

2022 WNBA Playoffs: How to watch, schedule, bracket and more

The Sky are aiming to become the first repeat WNBA title winners since the 2001-02 Los Angeles Sparks. They were the first WNBA team to secure a 2022 playoff berth, clinching their spot with a 78-74 win over the Seattle Storm on July 20. Their dominant 26-10 season matched the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces for the best in the league, and Chicago’s .722 win percentage marked a new franchise record. What’s more, the Sky had the league’s best record at home (14-4) this season.

But they’re still prepared to contend with a confident Liberty squad, who earned their spot in the WNBA playoffs for the second year in a row after beating Atlanta 87-83 in their season finale.

“I don’t look at us as underdogs,” said Liberty forward Betnijah Laney. “We’ve beaten them before; we’ve competed with them. It’s just the seeding, and they’re just the next opponent that we have.”

“We played them four times this season,” added New York center Stefanie Dolson, who played for Chicago for five years, including in 2021. “… And I think it gives us that advantage, though, to be able to play them so many times in the season, to have us scouting and I know a lot of their players. So, it definitely gives us some inside information.”

However, the Sky handily won the regular-season series against the Liberty, 3-1, and still have plenty of key players on the roster including Copper, two-time league MVP Candace Parker and 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, who’s in her first season with the Sky.

The Liberty counter with scoring leader Sabrina Ionescu (17.4 points), who also leads the team in assists (6.3), and she and forward Natasha Howard (15.1 points, 7.3 rebounds) combine for more than 14 rebounds per game. They also benefit from some first-hand knowledge regarding what it’s like to face Chicago in postseason play from first-year coach Sandy Brunello, who faced the Sky in last year’s Finals as coach of the Phoenix Mercury.

Containing Ionescu will be top priority for the Sky. In just her third year in the league, the 24-year-old first-round pick out of Oregon earned her first All-Star nod and made history as the first player in league history to post at least 500 points, 200 rebounds and 200 assists in a single season. She also added two triple-doubles to her resume, tying Parker for the all-time lead with three.

“I think we have a great game plan,” Copper said regarding containing Ionescu, “and we’re gonna do what we can to slow down a really good player.”

The 2022 WNBA Playoffs usher in a new playoff format. After six years of single-elimination games in the first and second rounds, the first round this year features a best-of three series, with the higher seed hosting the first two games, and if necessary, the lower seed hosting the decisive third game.

“You could definitely say that I feel like we come out (winning Game 1), we set the tone,” added Copper. “You don’t want to give the other team confidence; you don’t want to give them any hope. You want to take care of business, especially at home.”

Dolson, on the other hand, sees the advantage as the lower seed: “I think it just gives us obviously more of a chance,” she said. “’One-and-done’ is great for the lower seed; heartbreak for the higher seed. … Anything can happen in one game, so having a series gives us a little bit more of a chance to just play smarter and throw things out there to just try to throw the other team off.”


How to Watch the Chicago Sky vs. New York Liberty in the 2022 WNBA Playoffs

  • Game 1 – Wednesday, August 17: New York at Chicago (8pm ET on ESPN2)
  • Game 2 – Saturday, August 20: New York at Chicago (12pm ET on ESPN)
  • Game 3 (if necessary) – Tuesday, August 23: Chicago at New York (TBD)

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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.”

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.