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.

Purdue’s Edey returning to school at NBA draft deadline; Kentucky’s Tshiebwe stays in

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Purdue’s Zach Edey decided it was the right call to go back to school instead of staying in the NBA draft. His predecessor as national player of the year, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, is sticking with his pro pursuit.

And Connecticut’s reign as NCAA champion will begin with multiple starters having left for the NBA draft and one returning after flirting with doing the same.

The 7-foot-4 Edey and UConn guard Tristen Newton were among the notable names to announce that they were withdrawing from the draft, the NCAA’s deadline for players who declared as early entrants to pull out and retain their college eligibility.

Edey’s decision came in social media posts from both the center and the Boilermakers program that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament behind Edey, The Associated Press men’s national player of the year.

But Tshiebwe announced late in the afternoon that he would remain in the draft after a college career that included being named the AP national player of the year in 2022.

For the current champions, Newton (10.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds) is returning after being one of four Huskies to declare for the draft after a run to UConn’s fifth national championship in early April. He scored a game-high 19 points to go with 10 rebounds in the victory over San Diego State in the title game.

The others were Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, wing Jordan Hawkins and versatile guard Andre Jackson Jr. Sanogo (17.8 points) and Hawkins (16.3) have made it clear they have closed the door on their college careers, while team spokesman Phil Chardis said that Jackson (6.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists) would remain in the draft.

The Huskies have 247sports’ No. 3-ranked recruiting class for next year to restock the roster, led by McDonald’s All-American point guard Stephon Castle.

The NBA’s withdrawal deadline is June 12, but is moot when it comes to college players returning to school due to the NCAA’s earlier timeline to retain playing eligibility.

STAYING IN SCHOOL

TREY ALEXANDER: Creighton gets back a 6-4 guard who averaged 13.6 points and shot 41% from 3-point range in his first full season as a starter.

ADEM BONA: The 6-foot-10 forward and Pac-12 freshman of the year is returning to UCLA after starting 32 games as a rookie and averaging 7.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks – with coach Mick Cronin praising his toughness for “competing through multiple injuries for as long as he could” in a statement Wednesday.

EDEY: He averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.5 assists while shooting 60.7% from the field. His presence alone helps Purdue be a factor in the Big Ten race.

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: The 6-6 guard went through the NBA G League Combine and had workouts with multiple teams before opting to return to Tennessee for a fifth season alongside teammate Santiago Vescovi.

JUDAH MINTZ: The 6-3 freshman averaged 16.3 points and 4.6 assists for Syracuse, ranking third among Division I freshmen in scoring behind only Alabama’s Brandon Miller and Lamar’s Nate Calmese.

OWLS’ RETURNEES: Florida Atlantic got good news after its surprise Final Four run with the return leading scorers Johnell Davis (13.8) and Alijah Martin (13.4). ESPN first reported their decisions, while Martin later posted a social media statement.

TERRENCE SHANNON JR.: Illinois got a big boost with Shannon announcing his night in a social media post. The 6-6 guard is returning for a fifth college season after averaging 17.2 points.

SPARTANS’ RETURNEES: Michigan State announced that guards Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard have withdrawn from the NBA draft. Standout guard Tyson Walker had previously withdrawn in April, setting up Tom Izzo to have five of his top scorers back.

GOING PRO

KOBE BROWN: Missouri’s 6-8 swingman opted against returning for a fifth college season after being an AP first-team all-Southeastern Conference pick averaging 15.8 points last season.

JAYLEN CLARK: The third-year UCLA guard averaged 13.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while leading the Pac-12 with 2.6 steals en route to being named Naismith national defensive player of the year. Cronin called him a winner with strong intangibles who made UCLA “a better program because he chose to be a Bruin.”

BRICE SENSABAUGH: The Ohio State freshman averaged 16.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31 games before missing his final two in the Big Ten Tournament due to a knee injury. He’s a potential first-round prospect.

TSHIEBWE: The 6-9, 260-pound forward is a tough interior presence who led the country in rebounds for two straight seasons (15.1 in 2022, 13.7 in 2023) while racking up 48 double-doubles. But he faces an uncertain next stop and is projected at best as a second-round prospect.

North Carolina transfer Caleb Love commits to Arizona

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Caleb Love is now headed to Arizona.

The North Carolina transfer tweeted, less than a month after decommitting from Michigan, that he will play next season with the Wildcats.

“Caleb is a tremendously talented guard who has significant experience playing college basketball at a high level,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said in a statement. “We look forward to helping Caleb grow his game at Arizona. And as we near the completion of the roster for the upcoming season, we feel great about how everything has come together. Now it’s time for the real work to start.”

A 6-foot-4 guard, Love averaged 14.6 points and 3.3 assists in three seasons at North Carolina. He averaged 17.6 points in seven NCAA Tournament games, helping lead the Tar Heels to the 2022 national championship game.

Love entered the transfer portal after leading North Carolina with 73 3-pointers as a junior and initially committed to Michigan. He decommitted from the Wolverines earlier this month, reportedly due to an admissions issue involving academic credits.

Love narrowed his transfer targets to three schools before choosing to play at Arizona over Gonzaga and Texas.

Love will likely start on a team that will have dynamic perimeter players, including Pelle Larsson, Kylan Boswell and Alabama transfer Jaden Bradley.

Biden celebrates LSU women’s and UConn men’s basketball teams at separate White House events

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WASHINGTON – All of the past drama and sore feelings associated with Louisiana State’s invitation to the White House were seemingly forgotten or set aside Friday as President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed the championship women’s basketball team to the mansion with smiles, hugs and lavish praise all around.

The visit had once appeared in jeopardy after Jill Biden suggested that the losing Iowa team be invited, too. But none of that was mentioned as both Bidens heralded the players for their performance and the way they have helped advance women’s sports.

“Folks, we witnessed history,” the president said. “In this team, we saw hope, we saw pride and we saw purpose. It matters.”

The ceremony was halted for about 10 minutes after forward Sa’Myah Smith appeared to collapse as she and her teammates stood behind Biden. A wheelchair was brought in and coach Kim Mulkey assured the audience that Smith was fine.

LSU said in a statement that Smith felt overheated, nauseous and thought she might faint. She was evaluated by LSU and White House medical staff and was later able to rejoin the team. “She is feeling well, in good spirits, and will undergo further evaluation once back in Baton Rouge,” the LSU statement said.

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, Biden said, more than half of all college students are women, and there are now 10 times more female athletes in college and high school. He said most sports stories are still about men, and that that needs to change.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs and activities.

“Folks, we need to support women sports, not just during the championship run but during the entire year,” President Biden said.

After the Tigers beat Iowa for the NCAA title in April in a game the first lady attended, she caused an uproar by suggesting that the Hawkeyes also come to the White House.

LSU star Angel Reese called the idea “A JOKE” and said she would prefer to visit with former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, instead. The LSU team largely is Black, while Iowa’s top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.

Nothing came of Jill Biden’s idea and the White House only invited the Tigers. Reese ultimately said she would not skip the White House visit. She and co-captain Emily Ward presented team jerseys bearing the number “46” to Biden and the first lady. Hugs were exchanged.

Jill Biden also lavished praise on the team, saying the players showed “what it means to be a champion.”

“In this room, I see the absolute best of the best,” she said, adding that watching them play was “pure magic.”

“Every basket was pure joy and I kept thinking about how far women’s sports have come,” the first lady added, noting that she grew up before Title IX was passed. “We’ve made so much progress and we still have so much more work to do.”

The president added that “the way in which women’s sports has come along is just incredible. It’s really neat to see, since I’ve got four granddaughters.”

After Smith was helped to a wheelchair, Mulkey told the audience the player was OK.

“As you can see, we leave our mark where we go,” Mulkey joked. “Sa’Myah is fine. She’s kind of, right now, embarrassed.”

A few members of Congress and Biden aides past and present with Louisiana roots dropped what they were doing to attend the East Room event, including White House budget director Shalanda Young. Young is in the thick of negotiations with House Republicans to reach a deal by the middle of next week to stave off what would be a globally calamitous U.S. financial default if the U.S. can no longer borrow the money it needs to pay its bills.

The president, who wore a necktie in the shade of LSU’s purple, said Young, who grew up in Baton Rouge, told him, “I’m leaving the talks to be here.” Rep. Garret Graves, one of the House GOP negotiators, also attended.

Biden closed sports Friday by changing to a blue tie and welcoming the UConn’s men’s championship team for its own celebration. The Huskies won their fifth national title by defeating San Diego State, 76-59, in April.

“Congratulations to the whole UConn nation,” he said.

Marquette’s Prosper says he will stay in draft rather than returning to school

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MILWAUKEE — Olivier-Maxence Prosper announced he is keeping his name under NBA draft consideration rather than returning to Marquette.

The 6-foot-8 forward announced his decision.

“Thank you Marquette nation, my coaches, my teammates and support staff for embracing me from day one,” Prosper said in an Instagram post. “My time at Marquette has been incredible. With that being said, I will remain in the 2023 NBA Draft. I’m excited for what comes next. On to the next chapter…”

Prosper had announced last month he was entering the draft. He still could have returned to school and maintained his college eligibility by withdrawing from the draft by May 31. Prosper’s announcement indicates he instead is going ahead with his plans to turn pro.

Prosper averaged 12.5 points and 4.7 rebounds last season while helping Marquette go 29-7 and win the Big East’s regular-season and tournament titles. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

He played two seasons at Marquette after transferring from Clemson, where he spent one season.

Kansas’ Kevin McCullar Jr. returning for last season of eligibility

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Kevin McCullar Jr. said that he will return to Kansas for his final year of eligibility, likely rounding out a roster that could make the Jayhawks the preseason No. 1 next season.

McCullar transferred from Texas Tech to Kansas for last season, when he started 33 of 34 games and averaged 10.7 points and 7.0 rebounds. He was also among the nation’s leaders in steals, and along with being selected to the Big 12’s all-defensive team, the 6-foot-6 forward was a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award.

“To be able to play in front of the best fans in the country; to play for the best coach in the nation, I truly believe we have the pieces to hang another banner in the Phog,” McCullar said in announcing his return.

Along with McCullar, the Jayhawks return starters Dajuan Harris Jr. and K.J. Adams from a team that went 28–8, won the Big 12 regular-season title and was a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where it lost to Arkansas in the second round.

Perhaps more importantly, the Jayhawks landed Michigan transfer Hunter Dickinson, widely considered the best player in the portal, to anchor a lineup that was missing a true big man. They also grabbed former five-star prospect Arterio Morris, who left Texas, and Towson’s Nick Timberlake, who emerged last season as one of the best 3-point shooters in the country.

The Jayhawks also have an elite recruiting class arriving that is headlined by five-star recruit Elmarko Jackson.

McCullar declared for the draft but, after getting feedback from scouts, decided to return. He was a redshirt senior last season, but he has another year of eligibility because part of his career was played during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is a big day for Kansas basketball,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said. “Kevin is not only a terrific player but a terrific teammate. He fit in so well in year one and we’re excited about what he’ll do with our program from a leadership standpoint.”