W.N.B.A. All-Stars Beat Olympians in Gold Medal Game of Their Own

With her group of All-Stars huddled around and bouncing up and down, Team W.N.B.A. Coach Lisa Leslie urged the players to keep up their energy.

“We’re about to make history,” Leslie, a Hall of Famer and four-time Olympic gold medalist, shouted. Then she added, “Rebound on three!” as they broke the huddle and made their way back toward the court.

That excitement and urgency permeated the Team W.N.B.A. bench throughout the league’s All-Star Game in Las Vegas on Wednesday. Leslie and Tina Thompson, also a Hall of Famer, coached Team W.N.B.A. to a 93-85 defeat of Team U.S.A. in a high-energy matchup that felt more like a regular-season game than an exhibition.

The participants carried a different mind-set into this game than in All-Star Games of the past, said Brittney Griner, the Phoenix Mercury center and seven-time All-Star, who led Team U.S.A. with 17 points. “We’re here to prepare to win gold,” she said. “It’s not your typical, go, have fun, throw up some shots. We’re here to work.”

After not holding an All-Star game in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the W.N.B.A. deviated from its typical format this season. This year’s game pitted the U.S.A. women’s basketball team, which will head to Tokyo soon for the Olympics, against 12 All-Stars who were selected by coaches from a pool of 36 players who had received votes from fans, players and the news media and were not on the Olympic roster. Though Team U.S.A. has faced the All-Stars in tuneup matches ahead of the Olympics before, this was the first time that the format was employed during the All-Star Game itself, which may have led to the added intensity.

“I never saw so much defense in an All-Star Game,” W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said before handing the game’s Most Valuable Player Award to Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale.

Ogunbowale, with Team W.N.B.A. in her All-Star debut, had a game-high 26 points on 10 of 18 shooting, hitting five 3-pointers. “Just represent for 24,” Ogunbowale said afterward, referring to the jersey number of the late Kobe Bryant, her favorite player. “Rest in peace, Kobe.”

Ogunbowale also wears the No. 24.

She said she felt “blessed” to be an All-Star. “There’s a lot of great players in this league, and for us to be chosen as All-Stars, that means that we’re at the top of the league,” Ogunbowale said.

While she compiled highlight after highlight on the court, Ogunbowale made sure to keep people on Twitter updated on the happenings of the game whenever she went to the bench.

And just as exciting as her All-Star performance is the season the third-year player is having. She’s among the league’s scoring leaders with 18.9 points per game and has scored in double digits in every game this season. In a game against the Liberty this month, Ogunbowale reached 1,500 career points faster than all but two other players in W.N.B.A. history.

Another All-Star having a great season is Connecticut Sun forward Jonquel Jones, who picked the word “grateful” postgame to describe her feelings after making her third All-Star Game.

Jones, an M.V.P. favorite this season, has helped the Sun to an Eastern Conference-best 14-6 record. She is leading the league in rebounds per game (11.1) and is second in scoring with 21 points per game. She had an 18-point, 14-rebound double-double for Team W.N.B.A. on Wednesday. She also nearly won the 3-point contest in a thrilling showdown at halftime that ended with a third crown for the Chicago Sky’s Allie Quigley.

Jones said the goal going into Wednesday was to give Team U.S.A. a game that would help the players prepare for their Olympic journey, but also to show that the players on the All-Star team could compete at that same level.

Before Wednesday’s game, Jones said that if Team W.N.B.A. won, she would view it as her own Olympic victory — if, Jones clarified later, Team U.S.A. also wins gold in Tokyo.

“I’m trying to win because this is the closest I’ll ever get to a gold medal,” Jones said with a laugh. “So I’m trying to go out there and get the W so I can be like, ‘Yeah, Grandma got the gold back in 2021.’”

Now Team U.S.A., led by Dawn Staley, a Hall of Famer and the University of South Carolina women’s basketball coach, will turn toward Tokyo as it prepares to seek its seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal later this month.

The 12-player Olympic roster includes the league’s career leading scorer, Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, who did not play on Wednesday because of a lingering hip injury; the career assists leader, Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird; and the career rebounds leader, Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi and Bird will try for their fifth Olympic gold medals, which no basketball player, male or female, has yet achieved.

The team also has six first-time Olympians, including Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who could have made the 2016 team if not for a knee injury.

After the loss to Team W.N.B.A. on Wednesday, Diggins-Smith said the game had taught the Olympians that they are not yet a team.

“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,” she said. “It was a good reminder of that. And it was also a good reminder that everybody is always going to want to take us down. So we got to be ready for that.”