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.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.