The Yearly Roundup: The Best of 2021
Breaking down the best games and content from the year that was
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Welcome to the yearly roundup! This differs from the weekly version you’ve all grown to know and love (or perhaps tolerate) in a few ways. First, I typically recap my pick for the best game of the week. In the yearly roundup, I offer my picks for the top ten games of the year. Second, I recommend a handful of women’s basketball articles written in the previous week by Her Hoop Stats and other sources. In this special edition of the roundup, I expanded this section to properly recognize the exceptional work that was done this year to promote women’s basketball. Finally, in the introduction, I ordinarily would reference some personal anecdote or pop culture phenomenon and somehow tie it into the week’s events of women’s basketball. This time, I simply wanted to thank you all for reading the roundup this year and supporting Her Hoop Stats.
Please take care, stay safe, have a happy new year, and enjoy the best that women’s basketball offered in 2021!
Top Ten Games of the Year
There were dozens of Olympic games, 209 WNBA contests, and over 4,500 NCAA Division I clashes in 2021. So, how on earth does one narrow that down to a top-ten list? Here are a few guidelines:
The game must have taken place in the 2021 calendar year.
The list is biased in favor of playoff games over regular-season contests.
All else equal, games with higher offensive proficiency receive a better ranking.
Without further ado, here are my top ten games of the year.
Honorable Mention: USA 3x3 escapes past France 18-16 in the Olympic semifinal, Seattle’s 100-97 overtime win over Dallas on May 22, Arizona upsets UConn in the Final Four, Phoenix eliminates New York 83-82 in WNBA first round
No. 10 (tie): Maryland vs. Iowa, February 23
Warning: fans of effective team defense might want to skip to the next entry on this list.
Excitement in basketball games is typically associated with unpredictability. However, Maryland put its February 23 showdown with Iowa out of reach early, grabbing a 20-point lead with a 41-point first quarter. This game cracks my list of the year’s top ten games because it was one of the greatest offensive displays I have ever witnessed.
Before judging whether that statement is hyperbolic, please consider the following sample of the two teams’ combined offensive statistics from that game:
32 made three-pointers - the most in Division I all season
Caitlin Clark (34 points) knocked down nine of her 16 triples.
Katie Benzan (29 points) set a school record with nine threes of her own, shooting 9-for-10 from distance.
204 points - the second-highest, non-overtime, single-game point total all season
76-for-130 from the field (58.5%), including 32-for-55 (58.2%) from behind the arc
An average offensive rating of 135.1 - the highest all season by a margin of 7.5 points per 100 possessions
To be sure, these were not the stingiest of defenses. Still, both teams’ spectacular shotmaking made for one of the most wildly entertaining games in recent memory.
No. 10 (tie): Seattle vs. Dallas, June 4
The Gold Mamba struck again. Just as she did in the Wubble against Los Angeles, Jewell Loyd caught an inbounds pass with 0.8 seconds remaining and drained a game-winning, buzzer-beater. This time the Dallas Wings fell victim to Loyd’s heroics, dropping a 105-102 decision in overtime despite overcoming an eight-point deficit in the final two minutes of regulation to force the extra frame.
The offensive slugfest featured 207 total points, at the time the most in the league since Chicago and Connecticut on September 6, 2019, plus a whopping 50 fast-break points. Loyd dropped a game-high 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting, Breanna Stewart filled the stat sheet per usual, and Stephanie Talbot added 21 points (three off of her career high).
No. 9: Las Vegas vs. Seattle, June 27
A nationally televised broadcast, a raucous Michelob ULTRA Arena crowd, clutch performances, and a battle featuring the two teams with the best record in the WNBA - the June 27 regular-season clash between Las Vegas and Seattle had all the markings of a playoff atmosphere. Breanna Stewart (35 points, 11 boards, three blocks, three assists, and two steals) recorded a stat line bettered by just one other player in league history, and it appeared to be enough to help the Storm escape the desert with a W. Las Vegas’ Chelsea Gray had other ideas, catching fire in the fourth quarter and overtime, dropping 15 points over that 15-minute timeframe, and draining the game-winning mid-range jumper in overtime to give her team the 95-92 victory. Gray’s performance was the twelfth-most clutch performance in WNBA history based on win probability added (a metric that measures how a player’s statistical contributions impact a team’s chances of winning).
No. 8: Baylor vs. Michigan, Sweet Sixteen, March 27
Trailing by three points against Baylor in the Sweet Sixteen with less than 10 seconds left in overtime, Michigan’s Akienreh Johnson dribbled in the backcourt, almost traveled, launched a half-court shot to avoid the travel, and nearly Dearica Hamby’d her way to a tie game. The Wolverines received another chance to tie, couldn’t convert, and Baylor escaped with the 78-75 win.
Leigha Brown (23 points, seven rebounds) and Naz Hillmon (16 points, seven boards) led Michigan to a 54.0% effective field goal percentage, the highest all season against Baylor’s fourth-ranked defense.
Timely defensive plays by Dijonai Carrington (16 points, six rebounds, four steals), NaLyssa Smith’s perfect 11-for-11 performance from the field (24 points), and Moon Ursin’s 20-point effort proved to be enough for the Lady Bears.
No. 7: Stanford vs. Arizona, National Championship, April 4
It may seem odd that an NCAA national championship game decided by a single point lands this low on the list. Ever the eternal optimist, I prefer to think it’s an indication of the number of entertaining contests women’s basketball offered fans in 2021.
Stanford overcame a 21-to-6 turnover margin deficit and a scoring drought in the game’s final 2:24 to capture its third national championship in a 54-53 thriller over Arizona. While the Cardinal failed to force turnovers, their defense was effective in holding the Wildcats to just 28.3% shooting from the field and tournament standout Aari McDonald to an inefficient 5-for-21. Nowhere was Stanford’s strategy of making life difficult for McDonald more evident than in the final possession, where the Cardinal triple-teamed the Wildcats’ star guard and forced her into a difficult, fadeaway triple as time expired.
It capped off an impressive season for the Cardinal, one made all the more remarkable by the fact that they spent a ten-week chunk of the season away from home due to COVID-19 protocols.
No. 6: Chicago vs. Phoenix, Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, October 17
Facing a 14-point deficit late in the third quarter of Game 4, the Chicago Sky appeared destined for a Game 5 at Phoenix’s Footprint Center. Then, Candace Parker rattled off seven straight points to cut the Mercury lead to a manageable seven points. In the fourth quarter, Courtney Vandersloot assisted or scored the team’s final 11 points, including a critical turnaround seven-footer that helped put the game away and clinch the franchise’s first title. It was the culmination of an unforgettable playoff run for the city of Chicago.
No. 5: Connecticut vs. Chicago, Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals, September 28
The top-seeded Connecticut Sun entered the WNBA playoffs on a 14-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the sixth-seeded Chicago Sky was the epitome of inconsistency, posting a 16-16 regular-season record. However, Chicago’s 101-95 double-overtime win over Connecticut in Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals at Mohegan Sun Arena demonstrated how regular-season records can be thrown out the window come playoff time.
It was a harbinger of things to come later in the series. The W’s best defense all season yielding just 90.1 points per 100 possessions, Connecticut’s Game 1 defensive rating was 99.0. This was largely due to Courtney Vandersloot, who compiled the second triple-double in league history and tied her own WNBA record with 18 assists.
No. 4: Stanford vs. South Carolina, Final Four, April 2
The roller-coaster of emotions in the final minute of the Final Four contest between Stanford and South Carolina propels it to the No. 4 spot on this list. Trailing 64-59 with 1:18 left, Gamecocks point guard Destanni Henderson scored six consecutive points to give South Carolina a one-point lead. Haley Jones responded with a 15-foot jumper on the ensuing possession. After Henderson committed a turnover with 13.1 seconds, Stanford returned the favor, as Aliyah Boston stole the inbounds pass from Cameron Brink. Boston passed to Brea Beal on the fast break, and she missed a runner. Boston’s game-winning putback attempt rimmed out as time expired, and Stanford advanced to its fifth national championship game.
No. 3: Phoenix vs. Las Vegas, Game 5 of the WNBA Semifinals, October 8
Take the No. 9 game on this list, increase the stakes to be a win-or-go-home game, pack in an additional 6,000 fans into Las Vegas’ Michelob ULTRA Arena, and you’ve created the atmosphere for Phoenix’s series-deciding 87-84 win in Game 5 of the WNBA semifinals. Diana Taurasi dropped 14 of her 24 points in the fourth quarter. With the score tied at 84, Shey Peddy (15 points, three steals) made something out of nothing in the game’s pivotal play, drawing a foul on a desperation three-pointer. She hit two of three free throws. Brittney Griner (28 points, nine rebounds) sealed the win with a rejection of A’ja Wilson’s last-second attempt to tie the game, sending Las Vegas packing in front of a stunned Aces crowd.
No. 2: Baylor vs. UConn, Elite Eight, March 29
Baylor vs. UConn. Paige Bueckers vs. 2020 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year DiDi Richards. Foul or no foul?* OK, let’s not allow the game’s most controversial call to distract from an exceptional contest between two of the most successful programs in women’s basketball history.
The Lady Bears were rolling, leading 53-44 at the 2:37 mark of the third quarter when DiDi Richards went down with a hamstring injury. The previously stagnant Huskies offense exploited her absence, exploding for a 19-0 run that extended into the fourth quarter. Bueckers caught fire in that span, scoring 10 of her game-high 28 points during the spurt.
With UConn clinging to a 5-point advantage with under a minute to play, Dijonai Carrington attacked the rim and drew fouls on two consecutive possessions, knocking down all four free throws. Forced to foul with 19.3 seconds left, Baylor sent Christyn Williams to the line with UConn ahead 68-67. Williams rimmed out both free throws; Baylor grabbed the rebound and called timeout to advance the ball.
Whether it was Aaliyah Edwards’ interior defense or a blunder by Baylor, it’s nonetheless mind-blogging why Wade Trophy winner NaLyssa Smith didn’t touch the ball during the final possession. Instead, Carrington drove the lane and came up short on her pull-up jumper. The decision to not call a foul on Carrington’s shot would be hotly debated by fans for several days. UConn closed out the game with a free throw and advanced to its record 13th consecutive Final Four.
(*Definitely a foul)
No. 1: Seattle vs. Phoenix, WNBA Second Round, September 26
An overtime single-elimination playoff classic in what might have been the final battle between Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird? This was the best game of the season.
No team led by more than six in the second half. The fourth quarter alone featured five lead changes and four ties. The combination of Breanna Stewart’s absence due to injury, Jewell Loyd’s shooting woes (a playoff record 19 missed field goal attempts), and Brittany Griner’s dominance (23 points, 16 rebounds) proved too much for Seattle in the end.
Without the Bird-Taurasi backstory, I still think this is one of the ten best games of the year. The emotion underlying this contest elevates it into the stratosphere of one of the best WNBA games in league history. Give the “one more year” postgame interview with Holly Rowe another watch, and I challenge you to argue otherwise.
Her Hoop Stats content in case you missed it
We here at Her Hoop Stats aim to unlock better insight into women’s basketball through statistics, podcasts, articles, and more. Broken down by medium, here is how we tried to better achieve that objective this year.
New Website Features
Schedule pages - Daily schedules of NCAA and WNBA games and NCAA projections of who will win each game, the probability of winning, and the predicted score
Expansion of NCAA database - Extends back to the 2009-10 season (previously went back to the 2015-16 season)
Charting tools - Allows one to plot any pair of stats for players or teams in the NCAA or WNBA
Her Hoop Stats contributors and other WNBA insiders played various roles (team general managers, the WNBA league office, and the all-powerful player agent) as they simulated offseason transactions in the second annual Her Hoop Stats WNBA Mock Offseason podcast episode. Check it out on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or Spotify!
You can catch great content like this all-year long on Her Hoop Stats’ three podcasts: the Her Hoop Stats Podcast with John Liddle, Courtside with Christy Winters Scott and Gabe Ibrahim, and Unplugged hosted by Megan Gauer.
Newsletter - College Basketball
Heaven Hill chronicled Andra Espinoza-Hunter’s basketball journey and evaluated how she fit into Seton Hall’s offensive and defensive schemes.
Who was the most valuable player statistically last season? Using the win shares and player efficiency rating metrics, Megan Gauer dove into this debate.
The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Committee approved moving the women’s three-point line back from 20’9” to 22’1¾” for this season. In a two-part series, Ryan Weiss explored the potential impact of this change (Part 1 and Part 2).
Calvin Wetzel investigated the allegations of racism in the Lenoir-Rhyne University women’s basketball program.
The NCAA’s transfer portal featured a flurry of activity in 2021, and Derek Willis evaluated which transfers would have the greatest impact.
When it comes to the 2022 WNBA draft, fans know the names at the top of the board: Rhyne Howard, NaLyssa Smith, Naz Hillmon, etc. But, are there any players that fans and even front offices might be overlooking? Aneela Khan analyzed these potential diamonds in the rough.
Newsletter - WNBA
Without access to their financials, determining the value of WNBA franchises is not a straightforward exercise. Using the limited available WNBA data plus information from other professional sports leagues, Aaron Barzilai and Jacob Mox tackled this problem.
From the latest WNBA news to lineup minutiae, Richard Cohen had you covered all season with his weekly column WNBA Dissected.
After just 12 games in last season’s WNBA bubble, Brittney Griner left the Phoenix Mercury for undisclosed personal reasons and didn’t play competitive basketball until joining her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, in January. Kim Doss described the importance of this break to Griner’s mental well-being and to her dominance last season.
Alford Corriette broke down Liz Cambage’s possible destinations as she heads into free agency this offseason.
From league expansion to the current playoff format, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert covered a lot of ground with game announcers and reporters during a summer visit to Minnesota. Cindy Smith summarized Englebert’s comments on these and a hodgepodge of other W-related issues.
Gabe Ibrahim and Richard Cohen reflected on the Washington Mystics’ injury-plagued season and how the franchise will navigate a complex salary cap situation this offseason.
Robert Mummery analyzed Charli Collier’s play overseas and evaluated the extent to which it will translate to future success in the WNBA.
Other recommended content
Thank you to all of the talented women’s basketball journalists for sharing a multitude of compelling stories this year. Here is a tiny sample of their outstanding work.
In a piece for Sports Illustrated, Britni de la Cretaz wrote about nonbinary athletes navigating their way through a sex-segregated sports world. New York Liberty guard Layshia Clarendon is one of the athletes featured in this important article.
In late June, The Athletic’s Chantel Jennings and Dana O’Neil reported on the toxic atmosphere under Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman that led to several player departures. This prompted an internal investigation by the university, which ultimately led to Hillsman’s resignation. Jennings and O’Neil published a follow-up piece detailing former players’ attempts to alert Syracuse officials about the verbal and emotional abuse they suffered while playing for Hillsman.
For The Ringer, Mirin Fader wrote a compelling profile on WNBA superstar Breanna Stewart. This must-read article covers the difficult road back from Stewie’s career-threatening Achilles injury, her deal with Puma to create her signature basketball sneaker, and her drive to be the best.
Jeré Longman and Romain Molina of The New York Times provided the latest in the Malian basketball sexual abuse scandal that has led to the suspension of the president of Mali’s basketball federation, the imprisonment of a youth national coach, and calls for FIBA’s president to resign.
For the Hartford Courant, Alexa Philippou caught up with Connecticut Sun forward DeWanna Bonner and discussed the challenge of playing in the bubble last season while being away from her twin daughters and also what motherhood has taught her.
In February, former Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie published Secret Warrior: A Coach and Fighter, On and Off the Court, a memoir detailing her experience with bipolar disorder. For The Next, Jenn Hatfield discussed how Coach McCallie is using her platform to draw awareness to the disease and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness.
For the BBC, Lebo Diseko chronicled Egyptian civil engineer Sara Gamal’s journey to becoming the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to referee basketball at the Olympics.
The over/under for the 2021 WNBA All-Star Game was initially set at least 30 points too high. Then, a betting syndicate inexplicably bet on the over. Why? It’s a gambling strategy called a head fake, and David Purdum of ESPN explained in further detail.
In her Power Plays newsletter, Lindsay Gibbs investigated the difference in the quantity and quality of media coverage received by white and Black WNBA players.
For Vice World News, Natashya Gutierrez documented how the return of Taliban rule has impacted Afghan wheelchair basketball captain Nilofar Bayat, national Paralympic athletes, and others with disabilities in Afghanistan.
Katie Barnes explored the impact of the recent spate of legislation aimed at restricting transgender athletes in an eye-opening piece for ESPN.
It’s never too late to learn how to play basketball. Just ask 92-year-old Marge Carl, who grew up prior to Title IX’s passage in 1972 and picked up the game in her 60s. The New York Times’ Soumya Karlamangla sat down with more of these amazing women who compete in the San Diego Senior Women’s Basketball Association.
For Global Sport Matters, Mikaela Brewer revealed the mental and emotional toll Stanford experienced behind the scenes last season on its path to a national championship.
Trivia question of the year
Who completes this list of coaches who have taken at least two different programs to the NCAA Final Four?