Jackie Young showcases ‘most improved player’ status in Las Vegas’ Game 3 win over Seattle

ackie Young #0 of the Las Vegas Aces drives to the basket during the game against the Seattle Storm.
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Jackie Young showcased her “most improved player” status on Sunday, making a layup with 0.2 seconds left to send the game into overtime as the Las Vegas Aces beat the Seattle Storm, 110-98, to take a 2-1 lead in their best-of-five semifinal series.

“Go ahead and do your thing,” said Las Vegas’ 2022 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson regarding her teammate’s buzzer-beater. “Like, we’re pros; this is what we do. This is our living, so this is what we’re supposed to do. I want Jackie to make the shot.”

Wilson recorded a playoff career-high with 34 points and 11 rebounds, Chelsea Gray added 29 points and 12 assists, and Riquna Williams added 14 points off the bench. Kelsey Plum had 16 points, including a three-pointer that keyed the Aces’ momentum in overtime.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of something like that,” said Aces head coach and 2022 Coach of the Year Becky Hammon. “The back-and-forth of the battle. We got off to a decent start; I thought they got away from us a little bit in the third and fourth quarter. Then obviously just big shot after big shot – from both sides, really. So, just executing down the stretch, being locked into what we needed to do, and really just sticking together in a really, really tough, tough environment with no give up.”

MORE WNBA COVERAGE: Las Vegas Aces vs. Seattle Storm — How to watch, highlights, live updates from Game 4

Breanna Stewart led Seattle with 20 points, while Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd each added 17. Tina Charles notched 16 points but missed a pair of key free throws with 7.2 seconds left in regulation that would have padded the Storm’s one-point lead.

Young contributed eight points, five rebounds and two assists, posting another solid performance in what’s become a breakout season for the fourth-year veteran. The 28-year-old Young, who hails from Princeton, Indiana, was recently named the 2022 WNBA Most Improved Player after averaging career highs of 15.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals this season, up from 12.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 2021.

“I definitely feet a lot more comfortable,” Young told media ahead of this season. “I think it was just changing my mindset and having a different mentality. That’s what I really worked on in the offseason.

“Last season, I was able to get to the spots on the floor that I’m successful at, so I think it’s just getting that same aggressive mindset and getting to the spots on the court where I know I’m successful and just having a just a confident mindset. Just being confident who I am as a player. I know my teammates trust me, so I just have to have the same trust in myself.”

2022 WNBA Playoffs: TV schedule, results, scores, semifinal format and more

Of note, Young improved her three-point shooting from 25 percent last season to 43.1 percent in 2022. In her first three seasons in the league, he made just 22 of 77 three-point attempts (28.6 percent). But she’s blown those totals out of the water this season, going 50-for-116 on threes.

“Honestly, I think it was a mental thing,” Young said regarding why she seldom took the threes. “But I definitely bought into [Hammon], trusted her and knew what I needed to do.”

“With Becky’s offense, we need to be able to shoot threes so we can spread the floor,” she added. “If I wanted to play, I needed to be able to shoot threes. I was hurting my team whenever I wasn’t taking them.”

The 6-0 guard, who played three seasons at Notre Dame, was selected as an All-Star for the first time in her career this season, and she participated in the Skills Challenge during the All-Star weekend. Young also was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the first time in her career this season, earning the honors for games played from May 16-22 after averaging 21.3 points, 3.7 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 2.7 steals and shooting 55.3 percent from the field to help lead the Aces to three wins.

Seattle trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half but rallied in the second and led 92-90 with 1.9 seconds left in regulation after Bird hit a three-pointer from the corner. But the storybook moment ended on the following inbounds play, as Young sent the game to overtime. The Aces outscored Storm 18-6 in overtime.

“Right now you’re not going to see happy faces, you’re not going to see people that are thrilled about what just happened, and that’s okay,” said Bird, who now stands one loss away from retirement.

“I think you have to kind of like go through those emotions to get to the other side. And then tomorrow, we have one day to prepare, we’ll watch film, we’ll come fresh. It’s Game 4, right? Like, had we won today, that doesn’t mean anything’s guaranteed in Game 4, so you just have to find a way to kind of put this one behind you and move on.”

Seattle hosts Las Vegas for Game 4 of their semifinal series on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET.

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

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.