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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.

Stanford guard Cormac Ryan enters transfer portal

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Stanford took a big hit to its roster on Wednesday as freshman guard Cormac Ryan entered the transfer portal, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com

A former top-100 prospect who showed flashes of being a key player for the Cardinal in his first season, Ryan’s loss is a huge hit for Stanford’s future rotation.

Putting up 8.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game in 28 minutes per contest as a freshman, Ryan immediately becomes one of the better transfer options available. Although Ryan struggled to find his shot at Stanford — shooting 33 percent from the floor and 31 percent from three-point range — he was a noted three-point marksman in high school who should command a lot of interest from schools looking for a floor spacer.

Ryan’s loss hurts Stanford as they return some talented pieces including Daejon Davis, Oscar Da Silva and Bryce Willis. The Cardinal have to replace senior big man Josh Sharma and NBA Draft prospect KZ Okpala, but they were expecting to return most of the rotation. Ryan’s late loss is something else Stanford will have to contend with as he played a heavy amount of minutes as a freshman.

The 6-foot-5 Ryan is a native of New York as it will be interesting to see if he wants to transfer closer to home for his next destination.

Seven returning collegians among Team USA U19 invites

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USA Basketball is welcoming seven sophomores among its 34 total invitees to training camp next month ahead of the FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece.

Incoming freshmen and Class of 2020 will vie for 12 roster spots with Kansas State coach Bruce Weber helming the team and being assisted by Washington’s Mike Hopkins and North Carolina Central’s LaVelle Moton.

The returning college players garnering invites are Kessler Edwards (Pepperdine), Tyrse Haliburton (Iowa State), Kira Lewis (Alabama), Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State), Trevion Williams (Purdue) and Bryce Willis (Stanford), along with Jayden Scrubb from the junior college ranks.

“The committee is excited at the level of talent that will be at training camp for the USA U19 World Cup team, and we expect to have a difficult decision trying to narrow down the group to 12 team members,” Matt Painter, Purdue coach and cahr of the junior national team committee, said in a statement.

R.J. Hampton, Samuell Williamson, Scottie Barnes and Jalen Suggs are some of the headliners from the group of players without college experience.

Sophomores

Kessler Edwards (Pepperdine/Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.)

Tyrese Haliburton (Iowa State/Oshkosh, Wis.)

Kira Lewis Jr. (Alabama/Meridianville, Ala.)

Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State/Mansfield, Texas)

Jayden Scrubb (John A. Logan College/Louisville, Ky.)

Trevion Williams (Purdue/Chicago, Ill.)

Bryce Wills (Stanford/White Plains, N.Y.).

Incoming freshmen

Eric Dixon (Abington H.S./William Grove, Pa.)

Dajuan Gordon (Curie H.S./Chicago, Ill.)

R.J. Hampton (Little Elm H.S./Little Elm, Texas)

Justin Moore(DeMatha Catholic H.S./Accokeek, Md.)

Casey Morsell (St. John’s College H.S./Washington, D.C.)

Zeke Nnaji (Hopkins H.S./Hopkins, Minn.)

Isaac Okoro (McEachern H.S./Powder Springs, Ga.)

Onyeka Okongwu (Chino Hills H.S./Chino, Calif.)

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (IMG Academy, FL/Overland Park, Kan.)

Isaiah Stewart (La Lumiere School, IN/Rochester, N.Y.)

Anton Watson (Gonzaga Prep/Spokane, Wash.)

Mark Watts Jr. (SPIRE Institute/Pontiac, Mich.)

Romeo Weems (New Haven H.S./Chesterfield, Mich.)

Samuell Williamson (Rockwall H.S./Rockwall, Texas).

Class of 2020

Scottie Barnes (University School/West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Nimari Burnett (Prolific Prep, Calif./Chicago, Ill.)

Joshua Christopher (Mayfair H.S./Lakewood, Calif.)

Sharife Cooper (McEachern H.S./Powder Springs, Ga.)

Cade Cunningham (Montverde Academy, Fla./Arlington, Texas)

Hunter Dickinson (DeMatha Catholic H.S., Md./Alexandria, Va.)

Jalen Green(Prolific Prep/Fresno, Calif.)

Walker Kessler (Woodward Academy/Newnan, Ga.)

Caleb Love (Christian Brothers College H.S./St. Louis, Mo.)

Evan Mobley (Rancho Christian School/Temecula, Calif.)

Ethan Morton (Butler H.S./Butler, Pa.)

Jalen Suggs (Minnehaha Academy/Minneapolis, Minn.)

Ziaire Williams (Notre Dame H.S./Sherman Oaks, Calif.).

Pac-12 loosens intra-conference transfer rule

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The Pac-12 approved a measure Monday that will lighten restrictions on players that want to transfer to schools within the conference.

Players who now make an intra-conference transfer will no longer be subject to an immediate loss of a season of eligibility, the conference announced.

“This rule change removes one of the last remaining penalties associated with transferring between Conference schools,” the league said in a press release, “and is designed to provide student-athletes with a similar experience to any other student who decides to transfer.”

The league also has passed rules to beef up its non-conference schedule as programs will be required to a non-conference five-year trailing average of opponents’ NET ranking must be 175 or less, no participation in road buy games, no regular season games against non-Division I opponents and no road games versus a non-conference opponent with a five-year trailing average of 200 NET. Those requirements, along with the move to a 20-game conference schedule, come in response to continued struggles by the league in basketball, with last season seeing the league flirt with being a one-bid NCAA tournament conference. Ultimately, its league champion, Washington, received a No. 9 seed with Oregon getting a 12 and Arizona State an 11 and a First Four invitation.

 

Stanford’s KZ Okpala entering 2019 NBA Draft

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Stanford sophomore KZ Okpala became the latest promising prospect to enter the 2019 NBA Draft on Thursday.

The intriguing 6-foot-9 forward put together a very good season in the Pac-12 for the Cardinal as Okpala averaged 16.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.0 rebounds per game while shooting 46 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range.

Viewed by some NBA draft analysts as a potential first-round pick, Okpala could rise up draft boards with strong workouts over the next several weeks. Turning 20 years old later this month, Okpala is still pretty young for his class as he shows a lot of explosiveness and upside.

If Okpala can prove that his perimeter jumper is reliable then he could be a multi-positional forward that a lot of NBA teams covet.

Nowell, No. 25 Washington hold off Stanford 62-61

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STANFORD, Calif. — Jaylen Nowell scored 13 points but missed the front end of a 1-and-1 during a nervous finish for No. 25 Washington, which still held off Stanford 62-61 on Sunday for a weekend split in the Bay Area.

Stanford star KZ Okpala missed an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer and the Huskies secured the loose ball.

Noah Dickerson added 12 points for the Huskies (23-6, 14-2 Pac-12), who lost 76-73 at California on Thursday night as the Golden Bears earned their first conference win.

Josh Sharma scored 16 for Stanford on a day when leading scorer Okpala was limited to six points with more than two dozen scouts in attendance. The Cardinal committed a pair of turnovers in the final 2:37 after the teams had traded baskets down the stretch.

Oscar da Silva added 15 for the Cardinal (15-14, 8-9), who had won the last four meetings at home in the series and three of four overall.

Marcus Sheffield hit a tying 3 with 5:09 to play to make it 54-all, and then Matisse Thybulle answered for Washington moments later before Sheffield made another jumper at 3:27.

Cormac Ryan hit a go-ahead 3 with 12:14 left to put Stanford ahead 41-40 and finished with 13 points. He made three 3s, but the Cardinal shot 6 of 17 from deep.

Washington had won 15 of 16 games before the loss in Berkeley but still wound up the outright Pac-12 regular-season champion when both Oregon State and Arizona State lost.

Washington’s David Crisp scored seven points on 2-of-8 shooting after a career-high 32 points at Cal, his second career 30-point performance, in which he matched his career best with five 3s.

Okpala picked up two quick fouls in the opening 10 minutes with a charge.

The Cardinal missed their first eight 3-point attempts before Sheffield connected with 16:20 left in the game.

Both teams went cold late in the first half — each team going 1 for 10 during a spurt — and the Cardinal didn’t score over the final 5:15 of the first half in a game that attracted some 30 NBA scouts to see the 6-foot-9 sophomore Okpala and Washington’s Thybulle and Nowell.

Washington, which missed its initial five field-goal tries, led 29-23 at the break.

Sharma received a flagrant foul with 6:27 left in the first half. Dickerson made a pair of free throws and then was hit with a technical at 6:21.

DAVIS OUT

Stanford starter Daejon Davis, the Cardinal’s second-leading scorer at 11.8 points per game, sat out with a right foot injury sustained during Thursday’s 98-50 win over Washington State.

BIG PICTURE

Washington: Washington also struggled from beyond the arc, going 6 of 17. … The Huskies had allowed 100 total points the previous two games combined before giving up 76 to Cal but got defensive late against Stanford. … Washington had been forcing 16.1 turnovers per game and pushed Stanford into 18.

Stanford: Okpala missed two early free throws and wound up just 2 of 8 from the line. … Stanford is 1-17 vs. AP ranked opponents under third-year coach Jerod Haase — beating No. 16 Arizona State on Jan. 17 last year — and Haase is 3-25 all-time against ranked teams in seven seasons as a head coach overall. … The Cardinal dropped to 10-3 at home. … Stanford’s new “Tree” mascot shook her branches after being crowned following the final buzzer after a rigorous two-week tryout.