Sports Strength

Hailey Van Lith Isn’t Done

Off the court, Hailey Van Lith is the premier celebrity endorser in college sports. With over 700,000 Instagram followers, Van Lith is estimated to be the most valuable athlete in the NCAA’s new Name, Image, Likeness era; according to Opendorse, Van Lith’s social media clout is worth approximately $1 million. Since NIL restrictions were lifted last summer, she has inked deals with Icy Hot, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Billionaire Girls Club and Twitch. Her Instagrams and TikToks are standard influencer fare: dancing videos, paeans to the grind and sponsored content.

On the court, Van Lith is a fucking maniac. A prominent character in the extended Ball Is Life/SLAM/Overtime cinematic universe, Van Lith is all unrelenting swagger—or, as the titles of her high school mixtapes would say: she is DANGEROUSLY SAUCY, so you should watch your ANKLES, SHEESH [fire emoji]. During Louisville’s run to the Final Four, she became the first player in school history to score more than 20 points in four straight NCAA Tournament games. Although she’s often been compared to James Harden on account of her left-handedness, Van Lith plays with a more direct tempo, eschewing Harden’s winding solos for decisive bursts to the rim. 

Naturally, Van Lith is part of the wave of Kobe Bryant disciples who have recently taken over women’s basketball; Bryant befriended Van Lith when she was in high school precisely because she’s the best kind of competitive psycho. When asked what advice Bryant would give her now, Van Lith responded, on Disney-owned ESPN, “He would say ‘Go fucking win this shit, Hailey, we not done.’” 

Over the last four games, Van Lith has amped up her aggressiveness in the pursuit of winning this shit, unspooling defenses with drives and talking copious amounts of shit while doing so. Nobody is safe—not the University of Albany, not the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, and definitely not Jimmy Fallon.

“We’re kind of like the Bad News Bears. We upset everyone’s bracket, we piss people off that we’re good,” she said after her Sweet 16 win against Tennessee. “We don’t need the people picking the brackets. We don’t need Barack Obama’s bracket, we don’t need Jimmy Fallon. We don’t need none of that, OK?”

This is—and I mean this as a compliment—truly insane stuff, the product of a competitive psycho. Louisville is a one-seed! They’ve been ranked in the top ten the whole season and have been in the top five since Christmas; Van Lith is a former five-star recruit and a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award as one of the best point guards in college basketball. It’s hardly unusual for athletes to dip into their nobody believes in us rhetorical bag in the postseason, but that’s patently untrue here: everybody believes in them. Because, at this point, it’s becoming impossible not to believe in Van Lith. 

Sports Strength

Becky Hammon Returns To The WNBA At The Right Time

Truth be told, any time Becky Hammon returned to the WNBA would have been the “right” time, but this particular moment is that. On New Year’s Eve, Hammon, a current San Antonio Spurs assistant coach, confirmed her return to the WNBA as she signed the league’s highest-paid deal for a coach after becoming the new head coach of the Las Vegas Aces.

While some basketball fans had become familiar with Hammon as a potential head coach replacement for the Spurs’ Greg Popovich, many remember Hammon as the six-time WNBA All-Star who was the face of the New York Liberty and formerly-known San Antonio Stars; who are now known as the Aces. In the same way, she shined on the court with her intensity and ability to succeed in the clutch, Hammon began having similar success on the sidelines.

Over the past seven years, Hammon made history as a Spurs assistant coach between being the first woman to coach in an All-Star game and winning an NBA Summer League championship as head coach. And even though some may be surprised at Hammon’s decision to return to the WNBA given her growing likelihood to become an NBA head coach, it doesn’t mean that chance is over if she chooses to return there.

But at this point of Hammon’s career, it’s about elevation. The newest Aces’ head coach knows all about that, and she couldn’t have picked a better time to return to her roots– the WNBA is the most popular it’s ever been, processes a significant number of talent, and her Aces are a title contender. Hammon is taking a massive step forward that will reward her with more in the future. And that’s regardless of whether the NBA is involved or not.

Hammon’s WNBA return should be a lesson in understanding that being a part of their league isn’t a demotion. It’s an honor and one’s way to giving back to the place that produced their greatest success yet.

Sports Strength

Women’s College Hoops Are Back And Better Than Ever

It’s incredible the difference a year makes. Nearly one year ago, the 2020-’21 women’s college basketball season began amidst great doubt and without all of its programs participating, a trend that would last throughout the season. But as we fast-forwarded to Tuesday (Nov. 9th), not only did women’s college basketball return, but it was better than ever. There was much to unpack between top-25 teams setting the tone, new coaches winning their first games, and leagues playing their first games in nearly two years. Down below are four takeaways from the opening night of women’s college basketball.

South Carolina’s depth should scare a lot of people

While the reigning SEC champion is powered by star power throughout their roster (2021 All-American forward Aaliyah Boston and USA Women’s Basketball gold-medal-winning head coach Dawn Staley), the depth of the top-ranked Gamecocks’ depth took center stage during their 66-57 win over fifth-ranked North Carolina State.

Even while Boston struggled to find her shot on Tuesday night (eight points on 3-8 shooting), Zia Cooke, Destanni Henderson, and Laeticia Amihere combined to score 40 points and powered the Gamecocks’ offense. There won’t be many nights when Boston gets contained offensively, so for the Gamecocks to show off this kind of depth, especially against a top-five team, is impressive. 

The new faces in new places are off to a good start!

More than simply marking the beginning of a new season, last night marked the beginning of a new era for some programs that replaced their coach over the offseason. While the regular season can be a roller-coaster, winning your first game is certainly an encouraging sign.

Oklahoma’s Jeannie Baranczyk, Vanderbilt’s Shea Ralph, and LSU’s Kim Mulkey (formerly of Baylor and 2020 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee) were notable first-time victors with their new programs on Tuesday. Whether winning at the buzzer (Oklahoma) or dismantling their opposition (LSU won 82-40!), each program paid off the hard work they put in leading up to that moment.

Various conferences are ready to play after lost season(s)

For various teams, the season opener carried a special weight, representing the first official game that they’ve played since March 2020. After last season was rife with uncertainty and cancellations, Tuesday night possessed a sense of joy as packed crowds welcomed back their beloved teams 

Action for conferences such as the Ivy League was full-tilt as months of anticipation spilled on the floor. As a matter of fact, the first Ivy League program to play this season was the Columbia Lions, who took care of a legendary HBCU school, the Hampton Pirates, 78-56.

“There was so much uncertainty [over the last couple of years] that I quickly learned anything can change in a second,” Lions head coach Megan Griffith said. “But to give my team credit, they did a great job locking in and staying together, even if it wasn’t about basketball, and that will mean something this season.”