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Women’s Wednesday: Fran Belibi, the Stanford freshman that can fly

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Candace Parker is 6-foot-4. Lisa Lesie is 6-foot-5. Brittany Griner is 6-foot-9.

Francesca Belibi stands at just 6-foot-1.

And despite that, Fran can throw down with the best of them. Maybe better.

While Belibi had a passion for basketball ever since she began watching it with her dad as a little girl, she had three younger siblings and working parents, which made it hard to start practicing at a young age.

The Stanford forward dunked for the first time her freshman year of high school, coincidentally the same year she started playing basketball competitively. 

“I didn’t have school and me and my siblings were at my parents clinic, where there’s a room with a hoop,” Belibi explained. “I had club practice after and wanted to get some shots up before. At one point I was just like feeling myself, I had made a couple of shots. I told my siblings to move out of the way so I could dunk it. And I made it!”

When Fran whipped around to her siblings in shock to see who had seen her dunk, none of them had. She went up for a second time with three sets of eye on her, but missed it.

“Then, I went to club practice and showed my coach, and I made it again. I was like, ‘Oh wow it wasn’t actually a fluke.’”

It’s hard to believe that when Fran began playing basketball her freshman year she had “no idea what she was doing half the time.”

The Kansas City, Kansas native averaged 21.8 points and 12.3 rebounds her senior year in high school, helping her team to a state semifinals appearance. She was also named the Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year.

Belibi was the first girl to dunk in a Colorado high school game. Her first in-game dunk came in January 2017 and went viral, with Belibi noting that during games she “goes up and it just happens.”

Fran went on to win the Powerade Jam Fest dunk title at the McDonald’s All-American Game in March 2019, becoming the first woman to win since Candace Parker in 2004.

A common excuse people make when trying to justify not watching women’s basketball is that “women can’t dunk.” However, players like Belibi who have incredible vertical—hers comes in at 40 inches—are taking it one step further to prove that women who don’t necessarily have that same height can perform at a high level, too. 

“In the past couple of years, since my dunk has gone viral, I’ve seen more and more women going for the rim and catching lobs,” Belibi emphasized. “While it may not be happening in games, it’s definitely happening.

“To say women’s basketball is boring because we can’t dunk is finding excuses for not watching us and not supporting us. They shouldn’t put that down on all of us.”

Anyone who has seen Fran’s senior year alley-oop can surely attest that it is “definitely happening:”

Belibi is now playing major minutes for the No. 6 team in the country, where she’s averaging 6.8 points and five rebounds. She scored a career high 20 points against Utah, the day of the fatal crash that killed NBA legend Kobe Bryant. 

“I didn’t hear the news until after the game, but it definitely hit us all,” Belibi shared. “When I went out there I wanted to help my team out, contribute to the team and help us on the path we’re trying to reach. It’s about going out there and focusing and executing.” 

Stanford is in a tough Pac-12 conference with Oregon, but has showed what it’s capable of with commanding wins over Washington, Washington State, Oregon State, and more. One of the team’s two losses came to No. 3 Oregon.

“I think our team has all the pieces, it’s just going to take us coming together and gelling at the same time,” Belibi said. “We’re continuing to grow as a team, to execute, to play for each other and with each other.”

While Fran may not be looking to pursue a long term career in basketball—as the young star is on the pre-medical track at Stanford and hopes to become a doctor one day—the passion she has for the sport and brings to the court remains unaffected.

“When we played Oregon there were 12,000 people at the game, and it wasn’t even a playoff game,” Belibi exclaimed. “There are more people coming out and watching, more people watching the WNBA. The fact that people are conscious of what we do and going out and supporting is helping grow the sport.”

While there’s still a long way to go before people pay women’s basketball the respect it deserves, Belibi is hopeful for the future of women’s basketball.

“I think it needs to start with watching us, understanding that obviously we’re not built the same as men—so we’re not going to be able to do the same things men do—but appreciating the things we do.

“I think it’s going to take some time to be at an equal standing, but we’re getting there. Step by step.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

– No. 3 Oregon battled No. 4 UConn in one of the biggest and most highly anticipated matchup of the season on Monday night. The Ducks beat the Huskies 74-56, handing UConn its first loss at Gampel Pavilion since 2013 and breaking a 66-game streak. The Ducks made history with their first EVER road win over a top-5 team.

Sabrina Ionescu, who has 23 career triple-doubles, ended the game with 10 points, nine assists and nine rebounds—just one rebound and assist short from being the first player to score a triple-double against UConn in school history. Ruthy Hebard led the way for Oregon with 22 points and 12 rebounds, notching her 50th career double-double, while UConn’s Crystal Dangerfield ended the game with a team high 19 points.

– South Carolina remains atop the world of women’s college hoops, ranking as No. 1 in the AP Poll for the third consecutive week.

– The Gamecocks scored 27 straight points to start the game in an 87-32 win over Ole Miss last week and delivered a commanding win over SEC opponent Tennessee over the weekend.  South Carolina has won 15 straight games, the second-longest winning streak in the nation.

– The top seven teams in this week’s AP Poll remain the same—although that will surely change once the Oregon-UConn matchup is factored into the new rankings. Baylor, Oregon, UConn, Louisville, Stanford, and N.C. State sit in spots 2 through 7, respectively.

– Baylor’s tough 66-44 win over Texas gives it a two-game lead in the Big 12. 

– Louisville beat Notre Dame by 32 points in its first win in South Bend since 2009. The Cardinals will try and extend its 13-game win streak in a big ACC matchup against No. 17 Florida State.

– Stanford made a clean sweep in Washington to keep up with Oregon in the Pac-12 standings. 

– N.C. State rallied from 10 points down in the third quarter to beat in-state rival Duke 63-60 and extend their win streak to seven.

– Gonzaga busted into the NCAA’s Power 10 rankings with a 59-44 win over BYU to extend its win streak to 20—the longest streak in the nation.

– After a rough patch, Oregon State needs to beat over Arizona and Arizona State in the upcoming week to maintain good standing as the Pac-12 tournament approaches. 

– Then-No. 16 Arizona secured the upset over then-No. 8 UCLA, notching its first win over a top-10 team in 16 seasons. Aari McDonald’s 27-point performance means she has scored double figures in 57-straight games—the longest active streak in the nation.

– Florida pulled off a BIG upset over then-No. 13 Kentucky in a 70-62 win on Sunday, snapping its five-game losing streak and nabbing its first win over a ranked team this season.

– No. 19 Arizona State gave its coach, Charli Turner Thorne, her 500th career win in a 76-75 triple-overtime win over USC.

– The NCAA released its first of two top-16 reveals on Monday, with the other coming on March 2. South Carolina, Baylor, Louisville, and Oregon took the No. 1 seeds. Check out the rest of the top-16 here

– In a not so surprising Play of the Week: A pair of scoring drives in the paint by Sabrina Ionescu showcase a sweet assist and unstoppable skill: 

Player of the Week: The Wolfpack’s Elissa Cunane put on a spectacular performance against Duke, scoring 22 second-half points to lead N.C. State to a comeback victory.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.