Aces’ Chelsea Gray turned All-Star snub into motivation for playoff run

Chelsea Gray of the Las Vegas Aces celebrates on the court
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The top-seeded Las Vegas Aces let a close one slip away at home Sunday vs. the Seattle Storm, who stole Game 1 with a 76-73 triumph in their best-of-five semifinal series. But first-year Aces coach and newly minted WNBA Coach of the Year Becky Hammon was quick to find the bright side.

“The good news is there’s some things that we can correct,” Hammon told media following the loss. “Obviously, we didn’t shoot the ball well tonight. It comes down to, sometimes, just making shots at the end of the game.”

Aces All-Star guard Kelsey Plum, who scored 20 points for the seventh time in her last eight playoff games, went 8-for-23 (2-of-10 from the three) on the night but missed two game-tying three-pointers at the end of a tug-o-war fourth quarter, including a 25-footer with 2.9 seconds left. Leading the way for Las Vegas was fellow guard Chelsea Gray, who scored a team-high 21 points, one rebound, five assists and two steals in 35 minutes.

The 29-year-old Gray went 9-15 from the field and is now 24-for-35 in the playoffs. Should she maintain her 68.6-percent shooting average, it would mark the highest field-goal percentage ever in the postseason for a player with at least 35 attempts.

“She just the steady in the storm,” said Hammon regarding the eight-year league veteran. “She’s calm, she’s cool, she’s collected. You know she’s going to get a look. So, you know, I feel good about putting the ball in her hands.”

The ball was indeed in Gray’s hands with 1:29 left in the game, when she swished a 17-footer to tie the game at 73. But a foul by Plum on Storm sharpshooter Jewell Loyd (game-high 26 points) gave Seattle the advantage when she made the second of two free throws and followed up 42 seconds later with a 20-footer to put the No. 4 seed on top for good.

“You know, it’s interesting because you have a game plan for everybody on their team, but in particular Chelsea Gray,” said first-year Seattle coach Noelle Quinn, who won a WNBA title with the Storm as a player in 2018.

But just last month, Gray was passed over for an All-Star nod, despite averages of 12.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 6.0 assists while shooting 45% from the field and 91% from the free-throw line over the first half of the season. While the rest of Vegas’ starting five – A’ja Wilson, Jackie Young, Dearica Hamby and Plum – headed to Chicago to play in the WNBA All-Star Game, Gray said she turned off her phone, put in extra workouts and prepared to crush the second half of the season.

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Gray got her due later that month when she was named MVP of the Commissioner’s Cup championship game, where the Aces beat the defending WNBA champion Chicago Sky 93-83. Gray scored 19 points, five assists and four rebounds, but perhaps more meaningful was the praise she earned from her teammates.

“I just want to, for the record, set it straight: She’s the best point guard in the world,” said Plum postgame. “She’s the starting point guard on the Olympic team. She’s an All-Star. She’s the clutchest player in the WNBA. Ask anyone, ask any GM, head coach, player. She got snubbed this year and it just sucks because I felt like we deserved five All-Stars.

“… She leads our team and when we need plays down the stretch, Chelsea consistently makes big plays. At the end of the day, you can talk about the numbers, but she wins games. That, to me, should be the most important thing. She doesn’t get the love and credit she deserves and I’m really, really glad people saw that tonight.”

Since the All-Star break, Gray has elevated her scoring and is tied for the team lead in the playoffs with 22.0 points. She also leads in assists, averaging 6.0. In her last nine games, she’s scored at least 20 points in six of them – including a career-high 33 vs. Seattle in their regular-season finale – and at least 15 points in all but one.

“She’s a bucket-getter, and, you know, I don’t know where we’re at without Chelsea Gray, to be honest,” Hammon said last week. “She is the leader out there, the floor general. She’s an extension of me. She’s somebody who takes a lot of ownership of our offense and our defense. … I think I give her a tremendous amount of trust, and she’s trusted me, so it’s a really good working relationship.”

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Gray, a California native, played four years at Duke, where she helped guide the Blue Devils to two ACC Tournament titles. But her college career was truncated just 17 games into her senior season after she fractured her kneecap. The injury, however, did nothing to impact her standing as a first-round draft pick in 2014. The Connecticut Sun drafted Gray 11th overall, and she earned her first of four All-Star honors in 2017 as a member of the Los Angeles Sparks, who also captured the WNBA title the same year.

“Chelsea Gray got a PhD in pick and rolls,” added Hammon. “She’s got her doctorate. She can slice and dice a pick and roll better than (anyone). I mean, she’s elite and I don’t even want to put her in any kind of company. She’s just elite at dissecting a pick and roll.”

As Las Vegas aims to cut down the nets next month for the first time in franchise history, they’ll need Gray to keep up the momentum. A challenge she’s up for.

“Yeah, there was a little bit of a chip on my shoulder for me not getting selected, but also getting more into a flow and in a rhythm with a lot more time in between,” Gray said recently. “Just reading the defenses, honestly, just taking what the defense gives me. It’s kind of like similar shots, I’m just knocking them down now.”

The Aces are back in action this Wednesday for Game 2 of their semifinal series vs. the Storm in Las Vegas.

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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 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

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.