Liz Finny

Courtesy of Carol Blazejowski

Women’s History Month: How Carol Blazejowski paved the way for female hoopers

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In recent years, women’s college basketball has picked up steam as stars like Sabrina Ionescu and A’ja Wilson have revolutionized the sport by garnering attention and support for their incredible talent.

Thirty years ago, that star was Carol Blazejowski.

“I grew up in a day and age where it was, for the most part, unacceptable to be a female athlete,” Blazejowski said. “I was a tomboy. I played sports, football, baseball, everything, with the boys.

“It wasn’t until I was 10 that I was introduced to the ’roundball’ and fell in love with it… You could practice it on your own. There weren’t any girls to play with back then. It was a time when there were no grassroots basketball programs for girls.”

Not only were there no grassroots programs for girls, but there wasn’t even a team at Carol’s high school until her senior year.

She entered college at a time when women’s basketball was just starting to get more publicity.

Even though the first women’s collegiate game was played in 1893 at Smith’s college, it wasn’t until 1972 that the first national intercollegiate basketball championship was held. That same year, Title IX came into play and demanded that schools fund women’s sports equitably. 

However, it still wasn’t getting utilized as it should have been. Title IX may have been a law, but people weren’t abiding by it, and scholarships still weren’t really happening, according to Carol. 

The New Jersey native decided on Montclair State University because it had a basketball team, it was a teacher’s college—so she could study physical education—and it was close enough to home that her parents could watch her play. 

When Carol got to Montclair in 1974, it was just a “little state championship.’ Her senior year, they were not only ranked, but made it all the way to the Final Four. 

“We gained a lot of media exposure, people were starting to take notice of me,” Blazejowski admitted. “There was a real buzz now around [women’s basketball], it was becoming a movement.”

Carol finished her career at Montclair as the all-time leading scorer in school history with 3,199 points. Her senior year she averaged 38.6 points per game and 9.9 rebounds, while ending with 95 assists and 92 steals. 

She even had the chance to play at Madison Square Garden in 1977, where she put up a record-setting 52 points against Queens College in front of 12,000 people.

“We were the story of the metropolitan area at the time,” Blazejowski smiled. “But, the game was at 10:30 in the morning. We thought, ‘Who’s going to come watch us play?’ There were 10,000 people who came to watch us at 10:30 in the morning.

“To me, the two stories were that we won—it’s always about team Ws—and the second piece was that I was in awe that we had so many people. I never in my wildest dreams thought we’d have that many people.”

Carol went on to win the first Wade Trophy for Women’s Basketball Player of the Year and was given the first USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year Award. In 1979, she led the USA women’s national team to a World Cup gold medal.

“You don’t realize until many years later,” Blazejowski answered, when asked about her groundbreaking career. “You’re grateful to have an opportunity to play. You know you’re creating a buzz. People are taking notice and watching you. It’s great, but you don’t realize until after the fact the impact you were making.”

Little did “the Blaze” know that she would make such a huge impact that it would land her a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994. 

“That didn’t even enter my realm of imagination—being inducted into the Hall of Fame.” Blazejowski said, with emotion evident in her voice. “You can’t even express it in words; the emotional feeling you have is overwhelming. The sense of pride, humility, gratefulness, to know that you’re immortalized with the greats in our sport of all time is really special.”

Carol continued to champion women in sports, especially women’s basketball, after her time playing it. She joined the NBA and worked in the licensing department before getting more involved in the development of the WNBA. 

When the New York Liberty were formed, Carol was asked to be the general manager and vice president, going on to become the senior vice president and then president over a 13-year WNBA career.

“Our first home game at the Garden, the arena was almost sold out. I didn’t even watch the first quarter of the game, I was too mesmerized by the size of the crowd and the people there, all the faces, all the jerseys that had their names on them. 

“Naysayers said it wouldn’t last, but here we are 24 years later. Yes, it’s about winning games and generating revenue, but now you’re seeing real change for women’s athletes. Now, they’re role models. You can aspire to be in the WNBA. It’s so much more than just a game.”

Now, Carol is giving back what she never had growing up. She founded Blaze Hoop Crew, a training program for young players to learn the game of basketball. Her goal is to “build feeder systems for programs so they have the very basics of being a basketball player,” for both girls and boys.

Carol is hopeful for the future of women’s basketball, and stressed the importance of having patience that it will keep growing and succeeding.

“We forget how long it took men’s basketball to grow to where it is today,” Blazejowski emphasized. “I think we’re still waiting for that magic moment to happen and be there, but it’s going to take time and we need to have patience.”

She also prides herself on being not just an ambassador for basketball, but for all women’s sports.

“The gap is getting smaller, but it’s a big gap. As long as you’re moving forward and upward, it’s all you can hope for. Whether it’s me with young kids, or Diana Taurasi in the WNBA, or Sue Bird with the Olympics, it’s all our responsibilities. There’s no going back. We’re not going back. We’re here to stay.”

As the world celebrates Women’s History Month in March, it’s important to remember where we came from, so that we can focus and more fully understand where we’re going. And basketball is no exception.

“It’s important for new players and new generation to understand the history of the game, the players who came before them, who paved the way, and have a reverence for that. I wouldn’t have had what I had if the generation before me hadn’t done what they’d done. It’s important to know the past to have a better and fuller appreciation for the future.”

NEWS AND NOTES

– No surprise here! Sabrina Ionescu was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year for the third consecutive year. She finished the year as the NCAA career triple-double record holder with 26. 

– Another Three-peat for the Ducks! Oregon finishes as the regular-season Pac-12 champion for the third straight year. Oregon beat Washington 92-56 to win its 16th consecutive victory and to stay undefeated at home. 

– South Carolina also secured a regular season title with a 60-52 win over Texas A&M to complete an undefeated SEC season. 

– Northwestern became Big Ten champs with a win over Illinois, UConn secured its seventh consecutive AAC title and Baylor took home its 10TH STRAIGHT Big 12 title.

– The 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Player of the Year award were announced on March 3, with Oregon claiming three semifinalists and South Carolina notching two. 

The four finalists will be announced on March 20, and the winner will be named on April 4. 

– The NCAA committee released its second top-16 early reveal ahead of the selection show:

South Carolina, Baylor, Oregon and Maryland all nabbed No. 1 seeds, and regional assignments can be found here.

The top three remained the same from the first top-16 reveal in early February; however, Maryland joined the group by muscling its way from the eight overall seed in the first release to fourth, riding 14 straight wins.

– With regular season games finishing up over the weekend, March Madness begins as some teams face off in the first rounds of their conference tournaments. 

A few of the bigger conferences’ postseasons are underway, such as the ACC and SEC, while others like the Big 12 won’t begin until next week. If you want a look at every conference tournament, including start dates, top seeds, schedules, and more, check it out here

– If you’re already excited about the NCAA Tournament, don’t forget to tune in on March 16 when the NCAA bracket will be revealed at 7 p.m. ET during the selection show on ESPN. The tournament dates and schedules can be found here, along with past winners. 

– Fun Fact: While most of us can’t dunk no matter our age, Shaquille O’Neal’s daughter, Me’arah, is near dunking at the age of 13!!!

Player of the Week: Oregon’s Ruthy Hebard scored a team-high 24 points in her senior game on Sunday and finished No. 2 in all-time scoring for the team behind Sabrina Ionescu.

Play of the Week: Hailey Owens took a girl to TOWN on this crossover that left her opponent on the floor: 

Women’s Wednesday: Elissa Cunane’s breakout season for No. 8 Wolfpack

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Elissa Cunane notched just 11 starts in 34 games her freshman year, as N.C. State lost to Louisville in the ACC Semifinals and eventually fell to Iowa in the Sweet Sixteen. She was averaging 13.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

However, just one year later, a lot has changed for one of the best center’s in the league. 

Cunane is now the leading scorer and rebounder for a 23-4 breakout Wolfpack team that is not only ranked eighth in the AP Poll, but will likely be a fierce contender in this year’s NCAA Tournament. 

“I think I had to have a little bit more leadership and impact being a year older and with some great seniors leaving last year,” Cunane explained. “They left us to pick up where they left off… I had bigger shoes to fill so I’ve stepped up my game.”

The 6-foot-5 center has certainly stepped up her game, averaging 16.9 ppg and 10.1 rpg, as well as shooting almost 40 percent on 33 attempts from beyond the arch. Cunane also leads the team with 32 blocks, and has 13 double-doubles on the season. 

The sophomore has started all 27 of the Wolfpack’s games so far, and finds herself a leader on a team that has plenty of veteran players. Of the starting five, three are older than Cunane, and half of the team is comprised of upperclassmen.

“I’ve definitely gotten everything from them, they’ve really laid the foundation for what a leader on this team needs to be and what it looks like,” Cunane said of her older teammates. “We’ve put away our differences of age and grade, because anyone can be a leader to anyone.”

N.C. State lost two top talents—Kiara Leslie and DD Rogers—to graduation, and while they were left with the majority of their team, the loss was felt. Leslie led with 15.9 points per game and put the team on her back in the tournament, while Rogers averaged 7.9 rebounds per game, grabbing a career-high 20 rebounds her senior season.

Despite this loss, the Wolfpack have bounced back with numbers they didn’t have last year.

“I think one thing is just that it’s a new year,” Cunane explained, when asked why this season was different. “After a season ends, you’re never going to be able to play with that same group again. We have three girls back from injury that we didn’t have last year, so we’re not shorthanded. We have subs that can come in, whereas last year we weren’t as deep.”

The team has shown incredible determination, rallying to a 50-48 comeback win over Miami last week after trailing through three quarters and notching their first win in Coral Gables since 2007. 

“We’re still staying humble,” Cunane emphasized. “This whole year has been very special for us. Everyone on the team really enjoys each other’s presence. When we’re hit with high highs or low lows, we’ve been really able to stick with each other.”

The Wolfpack had one of those “low lows” moments following their exciting win over Miami, with a tough loss to ACC foe and in-state rival Duke on Monday. A 22-point fourth quarter rally couldn’t save them this time as they fell to the unranked Blue Devils.

However, N.C. State has a chance to retain their No. 2 ranking in the ACC going into the conference tournament, as its two final regular season games are against struggling Virginia and Syracuse. With two more wins, the Wolfpack could stay ahead of Duke in the rankings by one win. 

And they have a great chance of doing just that.

Moving forward and not dwelling in the past is exactly what head coach Wes Moore has stressed to his his players, as he’s kept them “grounded through everything.”

“Something Moore always talks about is that we stay humble and that we’re always focused on our next game, not two games ahead or the one we just played,” Cunane said. “To enjoy the success but tomorrow it’s, ‘get back to work’, because we have everything to fight for.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

– Sabrina Ionescu recorded her 25th career triple-double in a 93-61 victory over California and her 26th in Oregon’s 74-66 win over Stanford—the Ducks’ 14th consecutive win.

With her 1,000th rebound in the third quarter against the Cardinal, Ionescu became the first player (male or female) in Division I history to ever reach 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists.

No. 3 Oregon’s massive win over No. 4 Stanford brings them just one game away from clinching a third straight Pac-12 outright title. 

– UConn’s No. 6 ranking in the AP Poll last week marked the first time that the Huskies weren’t in the top 5 since Feb. 5, 2007, ending a 253 week streak. 

– The top seven teams in the AP Poll remain the same, as N.C. State is the big jump from tenth to eighth. This week’s Poll can be found here.

– This weekend saw a flurry of upsets, with DePaul, Arizona, Mississippi State, UCLA and Florida State all falling to unranked opponents. They all dropped in the rankings, while Northwestern, Gonzaga and Texas A&M gained momentum.

– The Gamecocks captured the SEC regular-season title on Sunday with a 67-58 win over Kentucky in head coach Dawn Staley’s 300th win.

– Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey becomes the fastest male or female Division I coach to get to 600 wins in the Lady Bears’ 77-62 victory over Texas Tech. Baylor then crushed Oklahoma 101-69 in its following game, with all 11 scoring on the night. 

– Arizona’s Sam Thomas scored a career-high 31 points in Aari McDonald’s absence as the No. 11 Wildcats dominated Utah 85-69. 

While it may not be during the game, this deserves a shoutout. This week’s Play of the Week goes to the five consecutive half-court shots made by South Dakota State:

A case can be made for Sabrina Ionescu to win player of the week almost every week. However, she deserves this week’s Player of the Week after reaching multiple stunning milestones on Monday. 

Meet The Mabreys: Three sisters making a splash in women’s hoops

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A college athlete, a WNBA player, and an assistant coach.

Dara, Marina and Michaela Mabrey all have a fierce passion for basketball and an unbreakable bond with each other. Despite being almost constant competitors—whether that be in their driveway growing up or as foes in the ACC—the sisters have found a way to remain close and act as one another’s role models and confidants.

Their two brothers, Roy and Ryan, also share a love for the game, and finish out the Mabrey family starting five.

The Mabrey sisters have made quite the impact on women’s college basketball. The youngest sister, Dara, is a sophomore at Virginia Tech, while Marina and Michaela both played for Notre Dame—even overlapping for one year. On Thursday night, Dara’s Hokies will face off with Michaela’s Fighting Irish.

“I’m just super proud of both of them and where they’re at in their careers,” Michaela said. “I’m really happy to watch them every day and see how much they’ve grown, as basketball players and as women.”

The bonds of sisterhood

“As much as we can, we’re always there for each other.”

Despite the current distance between them, they find a way to talk every single day, Michaela added.

It’s been difficult for the sisters since the WNBA season ended. Marina is currently playing basketball overseas in Latvia, and her sisters haven’t seen her since September. Michaela is at Notre Dame and Dara resides in Blacksburg, Virginia, but the two face a rigorous ACC schedule that keeps them apart for most of the season. 

“We’re all super super close,” Dara said. “Even when things happen and we’re upset, we’re always the first people we call. Especially when we really need it, it does suck being away from your sister.”

Even while Marina was still in college, it could be hard to see each other with the busy schedules that college athletes undertake. But, this never stopped the Mabrey sisters from being there for one another when it really counted. 

When Marina was in her freshman year, Michaela spent time with her sister, walking her through all the challenges and obstacles of being a student athlete. And when Dara was dealing with the typical plight of being a first-year college athlete, Michaela went down to Virginia to be with her. 

Marina, learning from her big sister, did the same for Dara. 

“Marina drove through the night one night, my first summer there when I was kind of homesick,” Dara added. “She drove through the night for 11 hours from Notre Dame to Virginia Tech.”

When Michaela graduated and went into the working force, she was still able to find time for both of her sisters. 

“Last year, when I was working at LSU, we had a bye week and I was able to see Dara and watch her play against North Carolina,” Michaela said. “And I followed Marina throughout her entire tournament last year. I was at every game.”

While it could be easy to let life get in the way, that’s not how the Mabrey sisters operate.

“Those are my best friends,” Michaela beamed, seeming to smile through the phone. 

Growing up

“Obviously when you’re growing up, you do the same things your older siblings do,” Dara explained.

That’s how it all started for the Mabrey sisters. Michaela, the oldest, watched her brother Roy play basketball, and Marina and Dara followed in her footsteps from there. 

“We were all eager to play when we were younger… watching it and being around it so much made us want to do it,” Dara said. 

Each only two and a half years apart, the New Jersey natives didn’t have to wait long to be able to play against one another in their childhood driveway — where some of their most intense and competitive battles took place.

“Someone would come in crying or someone would be in trouble for pushing too hard,” Dara laughed. “There were plenty of times where someone would think it was a foul, someone thought it wasn’t a foul… Then someone would end up walking away. You’d give them 5 minutes to calm down and then eventually ours start playing one on one again.”

“I would try to play against Roy and Michaela and cry if I lost,” Marina added. “My mom would make them play with only their left hands and try to make it somewhat fair…but I stomped and cried every time I lost.”

Michaela has one story that comes to mind out of all of the pickup games the siblings played growing up.

“Last Christmas, when everybody was home, we went to the gym on Christmas morning. And it was Marina, Dara and Ryan — my little brother who’s 16.

“Marina always wins, she’s won almost every single year we’ve played. She always wins. And Ryan beat her this last Christmas. Me and my dad were on the side just laughing… They’re yelling at each other and they’re fouling each other. And my little brother Ryan ended up winning and Marina had a giant fit and it was so fun to just watch.”

While each sister had to deal with the pressure of being compared to an older sibling, Marina and Dara had to fight to escape Michaela’s shadow. Marina was apprehensive about choosing Notre Dame, as she wanted to make sure it was the right place for her. Dara, on the other hand, felt she had to differentiate herself from both older sisters.

“I was never compared to people in my class that I was playing against,” Dara admitted. “I was always compared to Marina and Michaela, which kind of stunk.

“Definitely, there was that added pressure my entire life. But I think people knew I was for real when I chose Virginia Tech, and they were like, ‘Oh she’s doing her own thing.’ That’s when they actually started taking it seriously.”

(William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Playing the game they love

“I just knew. When I came back from Virginia Tech I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I want to go there,’” Dara gushed. 

Instead of following in her sister’s footsteps to Notre Dame, Dara chose to go to another ACC school. In her freshman year, the 5-foot-7 guard averaged 11.2 points per game and was shooting 46.2 percent from beyond the arc. This year, Dara is averaging 12.7 ppg and is shooting 38.4 percent from three.

“I’m undersized, obviously, so I have to make up for it by playing as hard as I can,” Dara explained. “You can erase any mistakes when you do that. I’ve always been a believer in that, but what some people don’t know is that there’s a lot more where that comes from.”

“I’m just super proud of her and how she’s progressed the last year,” Michaela said of her sister. “I’m super excited for her and her career taking off a little bit more this year, and how their team is playing. They’ve got a really great team and Dara is a huge part of it.”

Michaela is no stranger to great teams, either, as part of the winningest class in Notre Dame women’s basketball history from 2012-2016. Marina was at Notre Dame from 2015-2019, overlapping with her sister for one year and being a part of the 2018 national championship team. 

“Winning the ACC championship together and everything like that, it was so unique,” Michaela said. “That year still to this day is one of the best years of my life, and to be able to share that with Marina.”

The oldest Mabrey sister thought about going overseas to play professionally after she graduated, but changed her mind “kind of last minute.” She had been told by different people that she’d make a great coach, so she tried it. 

“I love it, I love being back at Notre Dame and helping these girls just have the best experience on and off the court,” Michaela gushed. 

Marina went on to be drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks as the 19th pick in the second round, and averaged four points and 1.2 rebounds in 11.5 minutes per game in her rookie campaign. 

“For Marina, this has been her dream since I can’t remember how old… she is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever been around,” Michaela said, getting audibly choked up. “If she has a dream, she’s going to go get it. This has been something she’s talked about forever, being a WNBA player.”

The middle Mabrey sister is currently playing for TTT Riga in Latvia, where she is averaging 15.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 9 games. 

“I’m learning a lot about what it takes to be a pro here,” Marina explained. “I feel like I’m becoming a much better point guard because I’m working very hard every game to get my teammates involved and also understand when it’s time for me to contribute.”

Beyond her basketball skill, Marina is known for creating the “This Is My Kitchen” campaign.

“This is my kitchen campaign came about because people on Twitter would put down women’s basketball,” Marina explained. “They would make it hard for people to support us because of their disrespectful comments stereotyping where women belong, such as in the kitchen, cleaning or cooking. I got tired of reading it and of no one standing up for women’s basketball so I decided to.”

Her shirts gained the support of a wide variety of people, from NBA stars—such as Kyle Kuzma and Bradley Beal—to her teammates. Even the late legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi showed their support for the campaign.

“A lot of NBA players were in support of the movement and tweeted their support,” Marina said. “They reached out to me to have girls they know wear the shirt, so I’m happy that the world will spread that women’s sports deserve respect.”

Looking ahead

For the second year in a row, Dara will be up against one of her best friends. 

Marina was a senior at Notre Dame when Dara was a freshman, and the two faced off once, with the Fighting Irish handling the Hokies easily in an 80-51 win. Their parents sat in the stands wearing shirts that had the Irish on one side and Hokies on the other—Marina’s creation.

This year, Dara will face Notre Dame with Michaela on board as an assistant coach. 

”It’s definitely a unique situation,” Michaela admitted. “And, obviously, I’ve been watching Virginia Tech since Dara went there so I think I have a little advantage… But, I do my scouts the same every single time, whether we’re playing Dara or anyone else in the ACC. I think it’s just going to be an exciting moment for Dara and I.”

“Michaela’s a really good coach and it turns out, of course, that she’s scouting Virginia Tech. So she’s probably going to tell her players every single one of my weaknesses and how to defend it,” Dara laughed. 

Just as Dara didn’t follow her sisters to Notre Dame, she may not follow their career paths either.

“I’d like to do either [coach or play professionally], but if I can get a really good broadcasting job, I also might do that because I know that basketball definitely doesn’t last forever,” she said.

Marina is excited to get back to the Sparks in May and utilize what she’s learned overseas in her second year with the team. She’s excited to “earn more playing time, get better individually and become a better teammate.”

Michaela is focusing on how she can impact the women at Notre Dame both on and off the court, and is excited about the future of women’s collegiate and professional basketball.

“I think there’s a lot of attention that has stirred around women’s basketball the last few years,” Michaela said excitedly. “Even with the new rules that the WNBA put in and how much respect we get from NBA players, from men’s college basketball players. I think it’s just going to keep going up and up.”

“For women sports to reach the respect level of men sports, we’ll just have to keep pushing and give it time,” Marina added. “The WNBA is young compared to the NBA in years and we’re on track to be popular and start to strive towards much more popularity and attention.”

Women’s Wednesday: Aliyah Boston and the team that’s taken the country by storm

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“I just love this team.”

While this was how Aliyah Boston ended our interview, it is clearly also a common sentiment for how the freshman feels about her entire first season at South Carolina. 

The Gamecocks have had incredible success this season—they are the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, boast a 22-1 record, and have beaten three top-5 teams. However, that all seemed to come second to the caring and supportive dynamic between the players themselves for Boston.

The 6-foot-5 forward is a dominant presence on the court—leading the team in scoring (13.3 ppg), rebounds (9.1 rpg), and blocks (67).

At the same time, she also knows how to balance that with listening to the more experienced players on the team.

“It’s about knowing what I have to do,” she explained. “I know I need to be aggressive, aggressive in the post. I’m trying to do my part, rebounding, blocking shots, making myself known and being a dominant presence.”

While the young forward has seen a great deal of personal success this season, she credits all that she has been able to accomplish to her teammates. 

“Everything I’ve done this season is because of my teammates,” Boston stated. “I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today. They’ve done a great job of encouraging me, and being there for me. I’ve gotten down on myself because of shots I’ve made or things I don’t think I’ve done well. And they’re always there to pick me back up.”

Boston received a series of accolades in high school, being named Massachusetts Player of the Year by USA Today and  to the Naismith All-America Second Team in 2019—just to name a couple.

Yet, this is the most fun she has had playing basketball. 

“I think this year, Ty [Tyasha Harris] and Kiki [Mikiah Herbert Harrigan] have done a great job of leading us, being the only seniors on the team,” Boston said. “They’re making it fun every day to come to practice and play games.

“Their attitudes, they’re always smiling, they’re always happy,” Boston explained, when asked what the seniors did to make the team fun. “And we’re all competitive.. that’s the best part about it, that everyone’s competing and trying to make each other better.”

Competitive is an understatement when talking about this Gamecocks team, as they come off one of the biggest wins in program history. 

South Carolina beat UConn for the first time ever on Monday night in a 70-52 rout of one of the most storied women’s basketball programs. 

“It was great, I thought we played great as a team,” Boston said, excitedly. “And the atmosphere, the crowd was behind us the entire time.”

Before the game, head coach Dawn Staley and Harris had an important message for the team, having faced UConn in the past.

“Ty [Harris], before the game, told us to stay focused and play hard,” Boston recounted. “And Staley told us as we were prepping to think about it as another game and to not get too ahead of ourselves.”

The Gamecocks led from start to finish, securing a dominant win over the Huskies after eight unsuccessful past attempts. 

Harris had a team-high 19 points and 11 assists, notching her first double-double of the season while not turning the ball over once.

When asked about what the locker room was like after the game, Boston laughed and said, “It was exciting! We were dancing, we were singing. Lots of smiles going around. It was fun.”

South Carolina has six games left in the regular season, and just two against ranked teams. It’s evident the players are hungry to bring their program its second NCAA national championship in four seasons.

“[The win over UConn] definitely boosted our confidence but we just have to stay focused because we still have a lot of games left. We have to stay focused and keep working hard.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

– In one of the biggest matchups of the season, South Carolina beat UConn for the first time ever in a 70-52 victory on Monday night.

Crystal Dangerfield’s whopping 28 points was not enough to give UConn the spark it needed, while senior point guard Tyasha Harris led the way for South Carolina with 19 points. 

– Louisville suffered a pair of upsets, first to then-No. 17 Florida state on Thursday and then to an unranked Syracuse team on Sunday. Formerly the fifth ranked team, Louisville has dropped in the rankings to No. 9, while the Seminoles have moved up to the No. 14 spot.

The Cardinals—who hadn’t lost back-to-back games since February 2017—will face another tough road test when they face off against the No. 4 Wolfpack on Thursday. 

– Then-No. 10 UCLA also pulled off the upset over then-No. 6 Stanford, giving the Bruins a huge boost in the most recent AP Poll as they rose to No. 7 and the Cardinal dropped to No. 8. 

– No. 12 Arizona took down then-No. 9 Oregon State in 65-58 overtime win, which cause the Beavers to drop outside of the top-10 rankings to No. 11. 

– Arkansas made history on Sunday in its 103-85 defeat of Kentucky, marking the most points the Razorbacks have ever scored against an SEC opponent and beating the Wildcats for the first time since 2011. Arkansas went from No. 25 to No. 23 and Kentucky dropped from No. 15 to No. 18.

– N.C. State has won eight-straight games, causing them to soar in the NCAA’s Power 10 rankings from eighth to fourth. The upcoming matchup against Louisville will have major NCAA Tournament seeding implications for the ACC. 

– After beating two ranked teams in a row and coming back from a double-digit deficit in the second half against Texas A&M, Mississippi State rose to No. 7 in Power 10.

– Maryland ranks No. 10 in both the AP Poll and the NCAA’s Power 10 after a three-win week increased its winning streak to nine in a row. A win against Iowa on Thursday would put the Terps on top of the Big Ten.

– With the season at midway point, the Atlanta Tipoff club has released a list of the 30 players named to the Naismith Trophy women’s basketball Player of the Year midseason team. The list will be cut to 10 on March 3, and the winner will be announced April 4. 

Play of the Week: Myah Taylor made big-time plays in Mississippi State’s comeback win over Texas A&M, including this sweet pass to Jessika Carter under the basket:

Player of the Week: Shocker, Sabrina Ionescu secures her 24th career triple-double with a 15-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist performance against Arizona.

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.

Women’s Wednesday: Kobe Bryant’s impact on women’s basketball

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“His legacy will live on. You’ll feel Kobe Bryant.”

Dawn Staley’s words ring true as the world continues to mourn the untimely and tragic passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, as well as his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.  

Staley, the head coach for the South Carolina women’s basketball team, is a Hall of Fame coach and player and a three-time Olympic gold medalist. She was also a friend of Kobe’s, growing up in Philadelphia and sharing a gym with him under the watch of the 76ers’ John Lucas. The two also participated in the Olympic games together. 

The Laker legend is known worldwide for his impact on the NBA, with five championship titles, two Finals MVPs, and more.

While his resume is endless, Staley also remembers “The Black Mamba” for the father he was to four daughters, and the impact he had on women’s basketball. 

“Kobe was like no other when it came to supporting women’s basketball,” Staley expressed.

“He single-handedly took women’s basketball to another level by showing up at the games, by giving interviews and expressing what he felt was in his heart about women’s basketball. Once you’re able to see women’s basketball in that light, it helps grow the game, especially when it’s someone as powerful as Kobe Bryant, and as thoughtful, as detailed, as he was.”

Staley stressed the impact that Gianna’s love of the game had on her father being a fierce advocate for women’s basketball, saying, “I think Kobe would have been like this in whatever his daughters chose to have a passion about.”

“He thought long term and expressed things that no other professional men’s basketball player would ever say, that there are players in the WNBA that could play in the NBA,” the Gamecocks coach explained. “Kobe saw what he was instilling in his daughter. He probably wanted to say those things about Gigi… that she could one day play in the NBA.” 

After his retirement, Kobe could be found sitting courtside with his daughter, affectionately nicknamed “Gigi,” but he could also be found coaching at Mamba Sports Academy, where he was the head coach for Gigi’s team, the Los Angeles Lady Mambas.

Gigi dreamed of playing for UConn, and frequently went to Husky games with her dad. The pair also championed other top women’s programs, such as Oregon. 

“If you look at every single player that he has touched — Sabrina Ionescu, or the entire Oregon women’s basketball team,” Staley said, with emotion evident in her voice. “You look at UConn. Gigi wanted to go to UConn, she was fascinated with what accomplishments and traditions UConn stood for. We feel [her loss], there is a big void.”

Kobe’s passion for basketball, paired with the love he had for Gigi, has left many thinking that he would have become more involved in the WNBA in years to come. 

“I think women’s basketball would’ve grown to the point where Kobe would’ve put more of his money into it, because I know he put money into the Mamba Academy,” Staley said. “I’m sure he eventually would’ve gotten around to maybe even buying a team or buying into the league in some form or fashion.”

The devastating helicopter crash that took nine lives — including two other young girls, GiGi’s teammates, taken far too early — reminds us all of the fragility of life, and how quickly it can be taken away from us. 

In the wake of this tragedy, people are turning towards love and one another. 

Timelines are flooded with stories and anecdotes about Kobe, his relationship with his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters. Buildings and memorials all over the country are lit up in purple and gold, while tributes for the all-star pour in from as far away as the Philippines. 

Kobe has left a lasting legacy, one that Staley won’t forget.

“I hope with several of the NBA players, when they speak on keeping Kobe’s legacy alive, they will bring the women’s game along with it.

“Because that’s what Kobe Bryant was doing.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

UConn faced off against the U.S. national team on Monday night, putting up impressive show but ultimately falling short of an upset in a 79-64 loss. Fiver former Huskies dressed for the national team’s exhibition game.

Alongside many NBA teams, UConn and Team USA took honorary shot clock violations to start the game as a tribute to Kobe Bryant. 

The Huskies set up a stunning memorial for the late Gianna Bryant, who dreamt of playing for UConn one day, on their bench:

– The top teams in the county took care of business this weekend, with not a single ranked team upset by a lower-ranked team on Saturday or Sunday. 

– South Carolina maintained its No. 1 spot atop the polls, with 26 first-place votes from the AP panel, after an 88-53 rout of Georgia on Sunday. Baylor is No. 2 once again as well. 

– The rest of the top-10 reflects the talent among the top teams, with UConn and Oregon swapping spots as Oregon notched two back-to-back wins over rival Oregon State to take No. 3 in the rankings from the Huskies. The Ducks beat the Beavers 76-64 on Friday, outscoring Oregon State 45-29 in the first half, and then again on Sunday, 66-57.

When asked about her mentor and friend Kobe Bryant after the game, Sabrina Ionescu replied that “this season’s for him”:

Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu continued on her record-breaking rampage, toppling Gary Payton’s passing record as the all-time leader for Pac-12’s men and women’s assists. She is now No. 7 on the women’s career assists list.

– In another in-state rivalry, then-No. 18 Arizona secured the 59-53 upset over then-No. 16 Arizona State. The Wildcats jumped up to No. 16 while the Sun Devils dropped to 19.

– No. 7 N.C. State continues to impress with a 76-68 win over rival North Carolina. 

– And in the Play Of The Week: Anna Makurat goes behind the back to Christyn Williams for the layup in STYLE: