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Brittney Griner’s release celebrated by basketball world

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Brittney Griner’s loved ones and extended basketball family were ecstatic when news broke Thursday about her release from a Russian prison and that she was on her way back to the United States.

It has been nearly 300 days since the WNBA star was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February, when customs officials said they found vape canisters with cannabis oil in her luggage. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison in August. Now four months later, she’s headed home after the U.S. and Russia had a high-level prisoner exchange Thursday. The exchange did not include the return of another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.

“Today, my family is whole but as you all are aware, there are so many other families who are not whole,” said Brittney’s wife, Cherelle Griner, at a White House briefing. “BG and I will remain committed to the work of getting every American home, including Paul, whose family is in our hearts today as we celebrate BG being home.”

Griner, who turned 32 in October, was going back to Russia in February to play for her overseas team, UMKC Ekaterinburg. She went to Russia to supplement her WNBA salary, earning over $1 million to play in Russia.

“There has not been a day over the past 10 months where we all haven’t had Brittney Griner on our minds and in our hearts, and that has now turned into a collective wave of joy and relief knowing that she will soon be reunited with her family, the WNBA player community, and her friends,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, who admitted to being very emotional when she heard the news this morning. “BG has shown extraordinary courage and dignity in the face of enormous adversity.”

While it’s unclear right now if Griner wants to ever play basketball again, she would be welcomed back with open arms by both the WNBA and USA Basketball. The WNBA season begins May 19. Engelbert said she’d give Griner and her family some space and time before any discussion about her return to the league.

“It’s been a long, horrible ordeal and we really look forward to her return and hearing her voice,” Engelbert said.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley has been a prominent advocate for Griner’s return. Staley, who coached Griner on the 2020 Olympic team, feels that playing again could be helpful to the dominant center.

“It’s been a place in which we can block out everything else, join arms with our teammates. Listen to the incredible crowds that support our game. There’s so much love that the basketball community has for Brittney that they want to show her,” Staley said. “We want her back in her happy place. So I hope that Brittney laces them up. But if she does not, I truly would understand why. We’re still going to support it. We’re still going to lift her up.”

Staley said she broke down with tears of joy when she heard the news Thursday morning. Like Staley, WNBA players have done their best to keep Griner’s name in the national spotlight over the last eight months by talking about her in interviews and posting about her on social media.

On Thursday, they flooded social media with their joy.

“My heart is really singing with joy right now. Our sister is finally free,” WNBA player Chiney Ogwumike said. “This is a monumental moment for everyone who has shown compassion for our WNBA sister over the last 294 days since BG was wrongfully detained.”

Griner is under contract with the Phoenix Mercury, who were allowed by the league to pay her full salary of nearly $228,000 last season without it counting against their salary cap.

The team was thrilled that their eight-time All-Star was coming home.

“Miraculously, mercifully, the count of days detained has ended at 294, and our friend, our sister is headed back home where she belongs,” the Mercury said in a statement. “The emotions for our organization, just like for our fans and so many across the world, are those of joyous celebration, deep gratitude, grief for the time lost, and sincere hope for all families still awaiting the return of a loved one. BG’s strength in this process, her unwavering belief that resolution would come, and the hope she displayed every day is what kept all of us believing this day would come.”

Griner’s agent, Lindsay Colas, pledged that “BG and our coalition of activist athletes” will be lending their voices to help free other Americans detained abroad, including Whelan.

“Throughout this ordeal, BG has carried herself with courage, grace and grit; and President Biden made us a promise, and then kept his word and did what was necessary to bring her home,” Colas said in a statement. “We are forever grateful for his follow-through on that commitment.”

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Follow AP’s coverage of Brittney Griner at: https://apnews.com/hub/brittney-griner

Source: https://apnews.com/article/brittney-griner-sports-moscow-bg-group-plc-a26d1f8ef16560d7331d565e9bf5d5ea

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Report: NWSL to expand in Boston, Utah and California

The National Women’s Soccer League is close to expanding by three teams, which will be in Boston, Utah and the San Francisco area, according to a Friday report in the Wall Street Journal.

The women’s pro league previously indicated it would add at least two teams by 2024. The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported that the franchises in northern California and Utah are set to start play next year, with Boston to join at a later date.

The NWSL did not confirm the report in a statement Saturday to The Associated Press, saying: “We remain engaged in our expansion process and are excited about our prospects. When we have news to share, we will do so.”

The NWSL has 12 teams, after Angel City in Los Angeles and the San Diego Wave joined the league last year.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that the Boston and Bay Area groups will pay about $50 million in franchise fees. The Utah team will pay a reduced fee because of a previous agreement struck when the Utah Royals folded in the 2020 season.

Before the NWSL draft earlier this month, league commissioner Jessica Berman said it would be “somewhere between days and months, more like weeks, when we’ll be in a position to share information” about an expansion.

“What I can say is that I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities we have in front of us,” she added.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Former MVP Candace Parker to sign with champion Aces

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Former two-time MVP Candace Parker announced on social media Saturday that she would sign with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces.

Parker spent the past two seasons playing for her hometown Sky, leading Chicago to the WNBA championship in 2021. She also won the 2016 title playing for the Los Angeles Sparks.

She posted on Instagram that Chicago would always be her home, but “my family’s home is on the west coast.

“To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”

The free-agent signing period begins Wednesday, and the Aces can’t comment until then.

Parker, a 6-foot-4 forward/center, adds to an already loaded lineup that includes reigning MVP A’ja Wilson, who also won the league’s top award in 2020. Wilson also was last season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Chelsea Gray was MVP of the WNBA Finals and Kelsey Plum MVP of the All-Star Game. Wilson, Plum and Jackie Young were All-Star starters.

Parker and Gray were teammates on Los Angeles’ 2016 title team.

The Aces traded one of their key pieces, two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby, to the Sparks on Jan. 21, creating speculation Las Vegas was creating salary cap room to sign a big-name player.

Parker, the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year and the 2016 Finals MVP, certainly fits that bill. Even at 36 last season, she averaged 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists for the Sky.

“Candace has done so much for our franchise in her time here,” Chicago coach and general manager James Wade said in a statement. “I understand her reasons for wanting to be closer with her immediate family. We wish her nothing but the best. She will always be a part of the Sky family. We will celebrate her time here as she deserves.”

Losing her is a big blow to the Sky, who made the semifinals in last season’s playoffs before losing in five games to the Connecticut Sun. Kahleah Copper is the only starter under contract for next season, so the Sky could head into a rebuild.

“I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to win a championship in my hometown and parade down the same streets I watched the Bulls parade down as a young girl first falling in love with the game of basketball,” Parker posted.

Parker joins the Aces at a time the Women’s National Basketball Players Association said it wanted that organization investigated regarding allegations that Hamby made after being traded. She posted on Instagram she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against” because she is pregnant with her second child.

The Aces still have not commented on Hamby’s allegations.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Estrada, Hofstra end No. 18 Charleston’s 20-game win streak

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — This season, Hofstra has been a one-man show. This time, Aaron Estrada had some help as the Pride ended the nation’s longest winning streak.

Estrada scored 25 points, but just two in the second half, while Darlinestone Dubar added 18 as Hofstra had four players in double figures to knock off No. 18 College of Charleston 85-81 on Saturday — ending the Cougars’ 20-game win streak.

“That’s a really big for our program,” Hofstra coach Speedy Claxton said. “To beat a nationally ranked team on their home court when they’ve got it rolling like they do speaks volumes about our kids.”

Claxton saw a team effort to take down the hottest team in the country.

“It wasn’t just Aaron,” Claxton said. “He had a great first half, but we had other guys step up and make baskets or get rebounds when we really needed them.”

The loss ended Charleston’s spotless run that began after losing to then-top-ranked North Carolina on Nov. 11.

Hofstra, the CAA’s leader in field-goal shooting, used that to move past Charleston in the second half as it made 18 of 32 attempts. The Pride led 76-69 with 6:10 to play before the Cougars cut it to two points on Ryan Larson’s foul shots with 2:02 to play.

But Charleston managed just two free throws after that and missed all four 3-pointers they tried.

This is the second straight season the Pride have beaten a Top 25 team. A year ago, Hofstra defeated then No. 24 Arkansas 89-81. The Pride’s only other victory against a Top 25 team came against Southern Illinois in 1976.

Hofstra (15-8, 8-2 Colonial Athletic Association) beat the Cougars (21-2, 9-1) at their own game — 3-point shooting. The Pride were 11 of 22 from 3-point range and overall shot 56 percent from the floor in the second half.

Estrada, who had 23 points in the opening half, shredded the Cougars defense at will. Estrada was 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

“Estrada is a great player, hit a bunch of tough shots, especially in the first half,” Charleston coach Pat Kelsey said. “Hofstra is a very, very talented team. It’s not just Estrada. They were better than us tonight.”

Then Estrada took over. The CAA’s leading scorer at 21.1 points a game scored 16 of the next 24 points for the Pride, including four 3-pointers.

Ante Brzovic’s dunk at the buzzer gave the Cougars a 46-44 advantage at halftime.

Tyler Thomas had 17 points and eight rebounds for Hofstra.

Brzovic finished with 18 points to lead the Cougars.

BIG PICTURE

Hofstra: The Pride are on a roll in 2023. winning seven of their past eight games, including three in a row.

College of Charleston: The Cougars chances of receiving an NCAA Tournament at-large bid took a major blow with the loss to the Pride. Despite having the nation’s longest win streak for three months, Charleston will most likely have to win the CAA Tournament in March to advance to the NCAAs.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

The Cougars’ 20-game win streak wasn’t the only streak to end on Saturday. College of Charleston played 14 of its first 23 games at TD Arena to start the season and were a perfect 13-0 at home before facing the Pride. Charleston’s 13-game home win streak included three wins in the Charleston Classic. The Cougars became the first mid-major program to win the ESPN event, beating Virginia Tech 77-75 in the championship game. Charleston will finish the season playing four of their final eight games on the road.

POLL POSITION

Charleston’s first loss in nearly three months might drop the Cougars from the national rankings. They have been part of the last four rankings, entering at No. 23 before reaching No. 18 this past week.

UP NEXT

Hofstra returns home to play Towson on Thursday night.

College of Charleston starts a two-game road trip at Drexel on Thursday night.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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