The breakaway dunks, no-look passes and playful antics were replaced by players taking charges, diving on the floor for loose balls and attempting to win at all costs during a WNBA All-Star Game unlike any other.
A new format, which pitted the U.S. national women’s basketball team against a collection of WNBA All-Stars, produced a defensive-oriented exhibition that didn’t feel like an exhibition Wednesday night at the Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas.
And in the end, the underdog Team WNBA came out on top 93-85 thanks to red-hot perimeter shooting from Arike Ogunbowale.
In her first WNBA All-Star Game appearance, the Dallas Wings guard scored a game-high 26 points and walked away with the MVP award.
Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds while Atlanta Dream guard Courtney Williams had 15 points for Team WNBA.
“It’s dope,” Ogunbowale said during a teleconference interview. “I scored a little bit early. And then, with teammates like them, nobody is selfish on this team and they’re going to feed whoever is hot. JJ was knocking shots down. We feeding her. We feeding whoever was hot. It just turned out that I scored a little bit more points.”
It was clear from the start that Team USA would have difficulty containing Ogunbowale, who led the league in scoring last season while averaging 22.8 points per game and ranks eighth this season at 18.9 ppg.
Ogunbowale, who connected on 5 of 10 three-pointers, and Jones, who was 4 of 7 from downtown, were the players who consistently knocked down shots from outside for Team WNBA, which was 11 for 30 from long range.
Meanwhile, Team USA had its struggles perimeter and canned just 7 of 20 from deep.
During the game, Team WNBA co-coaches Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson implored the All-Stars to pound the glass, and they won the rebounding battle 41-37.
“We had a conversation about it before our first team practice,” Jones said. “And then when we came into practice, Tina and Lisa were like what’s the plan and what do y’all want to do? Everybody said we wanted to come in and we wanted to give them a good game and get them prepared for the Olympics. But also compete and show that we’re on that level as well. That was our plan going in, and we executed very well.”
Team USA received 17 points from Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner while Storm forward Breanna Stewart had 15 points and Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles added 12 points and seven rebounds.
“I never saw so much defense at an All-Star Game,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told the crowd afterward. “That was awesome.”
It was the lowest scoring WNBA All-Star game since 2003, which featured 13 ties and 10 lead changes.
Neither team led by more than eight points after the third quarter when the game was tied at 66-66.
Team WNBA was up 75-73 midway in the fourth and put the game away with a 14-7 spurt during a 2½-minute span.
Ogunbowale, who scored nine points in the fourth quarter, drilled two three-pointers during the run, which was capped by a long-distance dagger from Jones for an 89-80 lead with 2:34 remaining.
Team WNBA converted 11 of 19 field goals and outscored Team USA 27-19 in the fourth quarter.
When asked if her MVP performance against Team USA proved she should have been selected to the U.S. national team, Ogunbowale laughed and tried to downplay any controversy.
“Good luck to Team USA,” she said. “All of those girls are deserving. Hopefully they win a gold medal.”
Snubbed or not, several WNBA All-Stars felt an extra incentive to beat the U.S. national team that’s favored to win its seventh gold medal.
“Now they got to go handle their business so I can be like back in 2021, I beat the gold-medal team,” Jones said smiling. “So they got to handle their business first, and then I get to brag about that. So y’all know who I’m rooting for.”
Storm guards Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird, who set a record with 12 WNBA All-Star appearances and 10 starts, each finished with four points for Team USA.
The U.S. women’s basketball team dropped its first game since falling 93-86 to the Oregon Ducks in an exhibition in November 2019.
“I think we learned we’re not a team yet,” Bird said. “(Diana Taurasi) said it, we’ve had one practice and this group has never played together before. We learned it’s never as simple as throwing 12 of the best out there and it just clicks. That’s never been the case.
“It has not been the case in any Olympics that we’ve played in, and it was a good reminder of that. It was also a good reminder that everybody is always going to want to take us down, so you’ve got to be ready for that.”
The U.S. team plays Australia on Friday and Nigeria on Sunday in a pair of exhibitions in Las Vegas before starting the Olympics with the first of three pool games July 27.
The Olympic quarterfinals is Aug. 3-4 followed by the semifinals Aug. 6. The gold and bronze medal games are Aug. 7.
During the Summer Games, the WNBA is taking a five-week break and returns Aug. 12 with a Commissioner’s Cup championship game between the Storm and the Connecticut Sun.
The WNBA regular season resumes Aug. 15.
“It’s great just that we had an All-Star Game during an Olympic year,” Jones said. “Just looking back at a lot of the other players that have come through the league that have just produced really good basketball and then played at a high level, especially during Olympic seasons, they haven’t had this opportunity.
“I think that’s something that the league should definitely keep going and definitely something that grows as we go forward.”
— Chicago Sky guard Allie Quigley put on a show at halftime of the WNBA Game and won the 3-Point Contest over Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones.
Quigley, who won the competition in 2017 and 2018, proved why she was the favorite while tallying 28 points in the first round and the finals. Jones scored 27 points in the first round and 24 in the finals.
Loyd and New York’s Sami Whitcomb were eliminated in the first round after tallying 18 and 26 points respectively.
— Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi did not play for Team USA in the WNBA All-Star due to a hip injury. Meanwhile, Team WNBA was missing Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage, who also sat out because of a hip injury.