The Weekly Roundup: Mabrey Propels Wings into Postseason and the NCAA's Planned Tournament Expansion

Recapping the Wings’ playoff-clinching win and evaluating NCAA tournament expansion

Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also buy Her Hoop Stats gear, such as laptop stickers, mugs, and shirts!

Haven’t subscribed to the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter yet?

And then there was one. With Dallas clinching a playoff berth by virtue of its comeback win over New York Saturday night, only one playoff spot remains up for grabs as we head into the final week of the WNBA regular season. We’ll soon find out whether Washington, New York, or Los Angeles will claim the final ticket to the WNBA postseason. There’s still plenty more to sort out, as teams continue to jockey for seeding, home-court advantage, first-round byes, and double-byes. So be sure to follow us on Twitter @herhoopstats where we will keep you updated on the latest playoff scenarios.     

Game of the Week: Fourth-quarter comeback leads Dallas into playoffs

Allisha Gray celebrates after rejecting Sabrina Ionescu’s last-second shot attempt and clinching a playoff berth for the Dallas Wings. Gray finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds in Saturday night’s win over New York. Photo credit: Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

Saturday night’s contest at College Park Center had the looks of a playoff atmosphere - boisterous crowd, clutch playmaking, and even some chippiness that led to a double technical. The emotionally charged scene made sense given the game’s significant playoff implications. A Dallas Wings win and they clinch a postseason berth; a Wings loss and they fall back into a logjam of four teams battling for the final playoff spots. 

The New York Liberty seemed poised to spoil Dallas’ playoff-clinching party, using a 13-3 run to take a 70-57 lead early in the fourth quarter. Then, Kayla Thornton happened. Over the next four minutes, she knocked down two long jumpers (one for three), converted an and-1 off a beautiful pass from Marina Mabrey in transition, and put back a Mabrey layup. Thornton’s 10 points keyed a 13-0 Dallas run, transforming a 13-point deficit into a tie game at the five-minute mark. Thornton finished with 13 points, her highest output since June 1. 

A back-and-forth battle ensued over the final five minutes with each team claiming the lead. With 38 seconds left in the game and the Wings clinging to a 75-74 lead, Dallas forward Satou Sabally blew past Rebecca Allen to extend the lead to three. Sabally dropped 13 points in her first game since July 11, when she was sidelined with an Achilles’ injury. After a Natasha Howard lay-up and multiple empty possessions, New York had the ball down 77-76 with 5.7 seconds remaining. Sabrina Ionescu’s shot fake had the desired effect, causing defender Allisha Gray (13 points, 11 rebounds) to leave her feet. However, Gray recovered and rejected Ionescu’s last-second jumper from the foul line, clinching the victory and the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2018.       

Marina Mabrey led all scorers with 21 points and also contributed eight rebounds and six assists, a performance all the more remarkable given the emotional toll of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In the postgame press conference, Mabrey tearfully recounted how her mother worked in the World Trade Center and how her family, upon hearing about the terrorist attacks, thought her mother, Patti, had perished. Instead, Patti had left work early to buy a birthday gift for Marina, whose birthday was coming up a few days later. 

Reigning Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney led New York with 19 points and 6 assists. Sabrina Ionescu, who continues to show signs of a return to her early-season form, added 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists. Natasha Howard (16 points, 11 boards) recorded a double-double for the Liberty.  

New York, currently one game behind Washington for the No. 8 seed, finishes the regular season with games at Connecticut and, in what could function as a playoff play-in game, home against Washington. Dallas, who is still in the running for the No. 6 seed (the Wings own the tiebreaker over Chicago), next travels to Las Vegas for a matinee today and hosts Los Angeles for its regular-season finale.  

Three Stars of the Week

One player’s pair of double-doubles helped her team maintain its hold on the final playoff spot. Another player’s dominant effort nearly ended the league’s longest winning streak and almost moved her team one step closer to locking up a first-round bye. And a certain Las Vegas guard dropped a career-high point total in a win against Minnesota that could prove critical in the Aces’ quest for a double-bye. The players featured in this week’s Three Stars play on teams in three very different spots in the WNBA standings. Three different spots. Three clutch, late-season performances. Before diving into the list proper, here are a few honorable mentions.    

Honorable Mention: Jonquel Jones - 21 points, 14 rebounds, 3 steals on 9/9 at Los Angeles

Jonquel Jones recorded 10 points and 4 rebounds in the opening 5:33 of Thursday night’s contest at Los Angeles, helping Connecticut jump out to a commanding 17-0 lead and effectively put the game away early. The Sun have the highest single-season rebounding percentage in WNBA history; the Sparks have the worst. So, perhaps it’s little surprise that the top rebounder on the league’s best rebounding team of all-time posted what was her league-tying 15th double-double against a historically poor rebounding squad. Nevertheless, Jones’ solid performance helped Connecticut clinch the all-important double-bye and demonstrated once again why she’s the front-runner for league MVP.  

Honorable Mention: Marina Mabrey - 21 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists on 9/11 vs. New York

In addition to putting up her highest scoring total since July 2, Marina Mabrey posted season highs in rebounds and assists. It was a herculean effort by the Notre Dame alum given the importance of Saturday night’s game and the emotional strain of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. 

Third Star: Brittney Griner - 25 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 2 steals on 9/11 vs. Connecticut

Brittney Griner’s versatility was off the charts in Saturday night’s loss versus Connecticut. She dunked, knocked down a three-pointer, and dropped 25 points against the league’s top defense. It’s a defense so stingy that just three other players have put up at least 25 points against it this season. Only three other players in WNBA history have posted at least a 25-point, 12-rebound, 4-assist, 3-block, and 2-steal line. While the Mercury’s 10-game winning streak is over, Phoenix fans can rest easy knowing that their star center is healthy and firing on all cylinders heading into the playoffs. 

Second Star: Tina Charles - 31 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists on 9/12 at Chicago | 26 points, 16 rebounds (8 offensive) on 9/10 vs Atlanta

Tina Charles is back. Sure, she technically returned to the Washington lineup against Minnesota on September 4 after being sidelined for four games with a left gluteal strain. However, a pair of impressive weekend performances, particularly her outing at Chicago on Sunday, marked a resurgence of the MVP-caliber production fans have grown accustomed to seeing from the Mystics center this season. Charles posted the 11th 25-point, 15-rebound effort of her career Friday night, matching Lisa Leslie for the all-time lead. Her eight offensive boards tied Teaira McCowan and Jantel Lavender for the most this season - Geno Auriemma would be proud. She followed that effort up with her league-leading 10th 30-point game of the season and became just the fifth player all season to post a 30-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist line.   

It couldn’t come a moment too soon for a Mystics squad clinging to playoff hopes and without the services of Elena Delle Donne for the foreseeable future. Washington made no qualms about who its go-to player would be this weekend, especially Friday night when Charles’ usage rate of 46.3% was the highest in a game since the 2018 season

First Star: Jackie Young - 29 points (14-19 FG) and 10 rebounds on 9/8 vs. Minnesota

The mid-range jumper is a thing of beauty. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the following video from Las Vegas’ blowout win against Minnesota Wednesday night. 

Better yet, check out all of Jackie Young’s highlights from that contest. 

In a game that could have major double-bye implications, Jackie Young put up a double-double, including a career-high 29 points on a blistering 14-for-19 from the field. It’s an efficient shooting performance made more impressive by the location of her shot attempts. Young is tied for third in the league with 4.3 mid-range field goal attempts per game, and several of her jumpers Wednesday night came from that range. While analytics aficionados might want to shield their eyes given the lack of threes, it’s hard to argue with all the circles (made shots) below. 

The NCAA’s planned tournament expansion

Bryan Fischer of Althon Sports recently reported that the NCAA is making plans to expand the Division I women’s basketball tournament from 64 to 68 teams starting in 2022. The move is believed to be in response to one of the recommendations from the Kaplan report

The NCAA expanded its Division I men’s tournament to 68 teams in 2010 by creating the First Four, an opening slate of games featuring the last four at-large and automatic bids at a single site for the two days before the round of 64. While no further details are available regarding the changes to the women’s tournament, one would expect its expansion to take a similar form.    

From a Title IX perspective, the tournament expansion makes sense. The Kaplan report highlights this point in Recommendation #5: “In light of the approximately equal number of men’s and women’s teams in Division I, there is no justification for the disparity in tournament participation opportunities... looking at this issue through a Title IX lens, the number of participation opportunities for men and women should be substantially proportionate.” 

However, one could question the wisdom of expanding the men’s tournament to 68 teams in the first place. It was a good move financially, and the First Four has even spawned a few memorable Cinderella runs with VCU and UCLA making the Final Four in 2011 and 2021, respectively. Though at what point will the quest to maximize tournament revenue through expansion dilute the tournament field and render the regular season meaningless? After all, it was just last decade that the NCAA considered increasing the men’s tournament field to a whopping 96 teams

Despite ultimately recommending expansion of the women’s tournament to 68 teams, the Kaplan report did acknowledge the issue of uncertainty associated with the change’s impact on the women’s game: “Moreover, there has been no historical consensus among stakeholders on whether expanding the bracket would be good for the game of women’s basketball, due to concern that the lack of parity among Division I women’s basketball teams would make an expanded women’s tournament less competitive overall.”            

WNBA schedule this week (All times Eastern)

Here is a listing of this week’s games, start times, and where you can catch the action.

Adam’s Power Rankings

Check out the Her Hoop Stats Twitter page (@herhoopstats) tomorrow for our latest power rankings! Based on the criterion of who would win if teams played tomorrow on a neutral court, here is my contribution to those rankings:

Her Hoop Stats content in case you missed it

Just one game separates three teams fighting for the final WNBA playoff spot. Which of the Mystics, Sparks, and Liberty will punch their playoff tickets? Aneela Khan recently offered her take

From league expansion to the current playoff format, WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert covered a lot of ground with game announcers and reporters during her recent visit to Minnesota. Cindy Smith summarized Englebert’s comments on these and a hodgepodge of other W-related issues. 

In WNBA Dissected, Richard Cohen provided his thoughts on the W25, the WNBA GOAT vote, and how the reckless closeout flagrant foul is inconsistently called. 

James Hyman explored the world of non-fungible tokens and the sale of WNBA highlights in the first installment of a multi-part series on the W’s partnership with Top Shot. 

Other recommended content

From mental health advocates to legendary on-court performers, The Athletic’s Lyndsey D’Arcangelo provided her list of the 25 most influential WNBA players of all time. 

Spencer Nusbaum of The Next explained how the post-Olympics play of Monique Billings and Aari McDonald has injected some sorely-needed optimism into the Atlanta Dream. 

For Just Women’s Sports, Khristina Williams described how WNBA players are using fashion to promote their own brands, create visibility for the league, and publicize social justice causes. 

For ESPN, Steve Smith chronicled Lauren Jackson’s journey from a shy country girl from Albury to WNBA superstar. Steve also provided his list of the ten greatest Australian players in league history.  

Women’s professional basketball trivia question of the week 

When was the last year the number of teams in the WNBA increased, and which current franchise was added that season?

Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.