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Friday, July 19, 2019

Lynx Take 2-0 Finals Series Lead, Rallying in Fourth Quarter to Defeat Dream, 101-92

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Photo Caption: With a total of 56 personal fouls called—33 against Atlanta and 23 against Minnesota (not to mention the one technical against Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors, who protested too much in the eyes of the refs)—and a record number of free throws made and attempted, the officials were the stars of Game Two of the 2011 WNBA Finals.

Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

By Lee Michaelson

It took the Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream nearly two-and-a-half hours to play 40 minutes of basketball Wednesday night at the Target Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the Lynx hosted Game Two of the WNBA Finals. After trailing for three quarters by as many as 10 points, Minnesota finally rallied in the final period, for the second game in a row, this time pulling out a 101-92 victory before another record crowd of more than 15,000 fans.

The best-of-five series now heads to Atlanta, where Game Three will tip off at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, with the Dream facing sudden-death elimination and the Lynx riding the comfort of a 2-0 series lead.

By game’s end, the stars of both teams had broken the WNBA Finals scoring record, though it was hard to notice, as free-throw records were also broken. The proliferation of whistles and consequent parade to the line detracted from what otherwise might have been an exciting demonstration of high-stakes and high-quality basketball.

“Don’t y’all want to see us play and battle it out?” asked an obviously frustrated Angel McCoughtry, who broke the WNBA Finals scoring record she set in 2010 against Seattle with a game-high 38 points in Wednesday’s Game Two.

Photo Caption: Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry broke her own WNBA Finals scoring record, putting up 38 points in Wednesday night’s Game Two to surpass the 35 she logged in 2010 against Seattle. Twenty-four of her points Wednesday came in the first-half, second only to her own record of 27 for points in a WNBA Finals half, set in Sunday’s Game One.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

Careful to avoid explicitly saying anything that could result in her being fined by the league for criticizing the officiating, McCoughtry tacitly suggested that her team was being robbed by the referees, who awarded Minnesota a WNBA Finals-record 46 trips to the line, while Atlanta made 32 visits and played the fourth quarter with all but one of its starters carrying four or more fouls.

“It should be determined—not taking nothing [sic] from Minnesota; they deserve their win—but I think it should be determined between us and Minnesota who wins the game,” McCoughtry continued. “Let us battle it out. Let us scratch and claw to the end. ... If we all come out bloody, we all come out bloody. Let us play!”

Atlanta Coach Marynell Meadors, who was tagged with a technical in the second period for arguing a call too “enthusiastically,” was also choosing her words carefully. The length of the game, she stated, “tells me there was a lot of stoppage.”

“If you were the coach would you feel frustration after watchin’ that game?” Meadors asked a reporter rhetorically. “That’s what we felt.”

“[Y]ou know, short of getting fined for anything, there were a lot of free-throws taken in that game, 46 by Minnesota, 32 by us. You know, I just really don’t understand some of the things that were being called. Not to say that they were wrong, but there were a lot of things that I disagreed with. That’s part of the game.”

Atlanta reaped some of the benefit of the tightly—some may quite rightly say excessively tightly—called game, as McCoughtry made more trips to the charity stripe (21) than any other player. Not just any other player in this particular game, but any other player in WNBA Finals history, breaking the record of 18 free-throw attempts set by the Phoenix Mercury’s Penny Taylor in 2007. Indeed, McCoughtry notched 16 of her record 38 points at the free-throw line.

Photo Caption: Despite her complaints about the game’s officiating, McCoughtry was the beneficiary of many of the whistles, setting a new individual WNBA Finals record for free-throw attempts while going 16-for-21 from the line. However, as a team, the Lynx set the record for both attempts and makes, hitting 38 of their 46 free-throw attempts in Game Two.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

But on the whole, the constant stoppages in the game tended to favor Minnesota’s style of play far more than it did Atlanta, which relies heavily on a fast-paced transition game. Though they led for much of the game, the Dream never seemed to be fully able to find their rhythm.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the floor, Minnesota was able to use the constant breaks to its advantage, both to slow the pace of the game and to rest its older and somewhat battered players.

“It favored us in the second half,” admitted Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve of the nonstop whistles. “I think the frequency of the calls helped us to have Lindsay Whalen on the court for the full second half. Ordinarily, we need to sub for her, but the stoppage of the play helped her stay on the court.”

Despite accumulating five personals, Whalen played nearly the entire game (37:09), logging 13 points, plus four assists and a block. Her contributions were critical to Minnesota’s fourth-quarter rally, as she managed the offense magnificently and repeatedly found Seimone Augustus for open looks.

Photo Caption: Minnesota point guard Lindsay Whalen fakes the lay-up, instead firing a spectacular behind-the-back pass to an open teammate. Whalen finished with 13 points and four assists, and her steady floor leadership helped the Lynx rally down the stretch.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

Augustus finished with 36 points, breaking the Finals scoring record set by McCoughtry in 2010, though the Minnesota star remains relegated to second place in the record books after McCoughtry raised the bar with 38 points in Wednesday’s game.

In fact, Augustus did it all for the Lynx, leading her team not only in scoring but also in rebounding (eight boards), and dishing out three assists.

“This is my fifth Finals that I’ve been in, so I’ve seen a lot of playoff games,” said Reeve, who is making her first appearance in the WNBA playoffs as head coach of the Lynx but was part of the Detroit Shock’s championship runs as an assistant to Bill Laimbeer. “I’ve not seen the type of performance that Seimone Augustus showed us tonight, so the best individual performance I’ve seen in the playoffs. She’s a warrior. She is hurt, and she’s tough.”

Photo Caption: Minnesota’s Seimone Augustus also broke the previous WNBA Finals scoring record in Wednesday’s game. Her 36 points on the night were more than the record of 35 McCoughtry established in 2010 against Seattle, but fell two points short of McCoughtry’s new tally of 38 in Game Two.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

When Augustus is playing as well as she did on Wednesday, “I stay out of her way,” said Reeve. “‘Mone cusses everybody out. Tried to sub for her; she was made at me. We kept running plays for her. I stay out of her way, letting her make free-throws. [Augustus was an impressive 13-of-16 from the line.] ... She had to score every time, stay on Angel McCoughtry, got rebounds and she was impressive and I try to let her teammates deal with her, because she was, as they say, ‘Mo was in the zone.’”

McCoughtry was joined in double figures by three of her Dream teammates: Lindsey Harding posted 16 points to which she added a game-high seven assists; Iziane Castro Marques came off the bench for 14 points, on a much-improved (over Game One) five-of-10 from the floor and three-of-five from the arc; and Sancho Lyttle, freed by the return of center Erika de Souza from the lockdown imposed on her by the Lynx in Game One, put up 13 points and pulled down seven boards before fouling out of the came after just short of 24 minutes on the floor.

Augustus also led three of her teammates in double-digit scoring: In addition to Whalen’s 13 points, Jessica Adair came off the bench for 13 points (nine of them at the line), plus three blocks, playing 19 valuable minutes, many of them in relief of Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who left the game with an injury of unknown severity to her knee after colliding with teammate Monica Wright; McWilliams-Franklin added 10 points, plus five boards, two assists, and two steals before her departure late in the third quarter.

McWilliams-Franklin’s availability for Game Three is currently unknown, so Adair, and rookie Amber Harris who appeared briefly on Wednesday, putting up five points, including a crucial three-pointer, and pulling down three boards in just under six minutes, could be called upon to fill the void if the veteran center is unable to go on Friday.

Photo Caption: Taj McWilliams-Franklin, in obvious pain, waves to coaches and trainers on the Minnesota bench, asking to come out of the game after injuring her knee in a third-quarter collision with teammate Monica Wright on the penultimate play. She was unable to return to the game and her status for Friday’s Game Three is uncertain.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

After Sunday night’s Atlanta loss, Meadors had pointed to the imminent return of starting center Erika de Souza, who had left the Dream to fulfill her commitment to the Brazilian National Team, which took gold—and with it a berth at the 2012 London Olympics—on Saturday, as the key factor in reversing Atlanta’s fate in Game Two.

De Souza was indeed back in the line-up on Wednesday, and though she scored just eight points, her presence did make a major difference for the Dream. After being out-rebounded 28-40 in Game One, Atlanta won the battle of the boards in Game Two, albeit by a narrow, 31-30 margin. De Souza pulled down a game-high 10 of those rebounds, including two off the offensive glass. Her presence also relieved some of the defensive pressure on her running mate Sancho Lyttle, who was held scoreless on Sunday but put up 13 points in Game Two.

Photo Caption: Back in the Dream line-up after competing for Brazil in the FIBA Americas Championships, Erika de Souza (Blue, No. 14) controls the jump-ball tip against Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen. De Souza grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds to go with eight points, and equalized the battle of the boards, which Atlanta had lost badly in Game One.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

But both players were hobbled by foul trouble, with Lyttle picking up two early fouls in the first period, and forced to sit for much of the first half. Lyttle and de Souza each carried four personals into the fourth quarter, in which de Souza picked up her fifth and Lyttle, despite a rest on the bench, ultimately fouling out with over two minutes left to play and just four points (91-87) separating the two teams.

That meant that the Dream had to turn to the much slower Courtney Paris and the foul-prone Alison Bales for significant minutes. (Bales is one of those players who seems to attract a whistle anytime she is in the same zip code in which contact occurs.)

The Lynx started off to an early 5-0 lead, but by three minutes in, the Dream quickly tied things up. The two sides traded punches for much of the remainder of the first period, but late in the quarter, Atlanta capitalized on back-to-back Lynx turnovers and Maya Moore’s third personal foul to mount a 9-3 run and establish a six-point lead (28-22) by the buzzer.

To that point, the home team was landing just 40 percent (six-of-15) of its shots, to 55.6-percent field-goal shooting (10-of-18) by the visitors, and McCoughtry had already netted 12 points.

The Dream continued the run into the second period, again making the most of an Augustus turnover, and running the lead up to 10 points (32-22) in under a minute. Minnesota quickly battled back, as Adair converted a conventional three-point play, and McWilliams-Franklin picked off an errant Castro Marques pass, feeding it to Wright for a jumper.

McCoughtry blocked a lay-up attempt by Adair, and de Souza grabbed the rebound, but when the officlals decided that Lyttle had stepped out of bounds with the ball and turned it over to the Lynx, Meadors strenuously disagreed and was called for the technical, which Augustus sank, to close the gap to three.

Wright fouled McCoughtry, who netted both from the line, but then Wright redeemed herself, driving the lane and dropping in a reverse lay-up. Augustus followed that up with two short jumpers, was fouled in the process, and converted the penalty shot to tie the score at 36, a little less than four minutes into the second period.

But over the next four minutes, the Dream—mostly in the person of McCoughtry, with some help from a lay-up and a jumper by de Souza, a jumper by Armintie Price, and a trey from Bales, again ran up a 10-point lead.

McWilliams-Franklin laid one in with five seconds left in the period, cutting the lead to five, only to be answered by a buzzer-beating trey from McCoughtry, which sent the Lynx to the locker room down eight.

At that point, one was inclined to think that Atlanta, which seemed to have much of the momentum, would likely take Game Two and to wonder whether this series might rival the 2009 Phoenix-Indiana Finals as one of the all-time greats.

During the second period, the Lynx had improved their own scoring to 61.1 percent (11-of-18), but by now were allowing the Dream 63.2 percent (12-of-19) from the field and 75 percent (three-of-four, to a gaping zero for the Lynx) from the arc.

Reeve was understandably perturbed by her team’s lack of defensive intensity:

“As you probably could imagine our halftime was, as I told the team, I walked in and told ‘em I wasn’t going to yell and scream at ‘em, and then I started yelling and screaming at ‘em. I tried hard to keep it in, but we’re predicated on our defense and making things difficult. Everything they [the Dream] did in the first half was easy, every shot they took, and we didn’t take them out of their rhythm. We didn’t contest, we didn’t do anything, so it was very disappointing.”

Reeve said it was not so much a matter of making an adjustment at the half (though Augustus was restored to the defensive assignment on McCoughtry, who had notched 24 of her points in the first half), as it was a matter of changing the level of intensity, particularly on defense.

“So we came out with a sense of urgency and played better in the second half. They’re still good. ... We didn’t make any adjustments; we just asked them to play harder and dictate action better. I think we did that for the most part.”

If the Lynx had been looking solely at the scoreboard, they might have been discouraged, as the fruits of that increased Minnesota defensive effort appeared only gradually during the third period. The Dream maintained their lead throughout the quarter, and though the Lynx slowly chipped away at it, by the end of three, Atlanta still led by five (74-69), and that might have been seven but for an Amber Harris 18-footer with three seconds to go before the buzzer.

But what did not show on the scoreboard is that in the third period, the Lynx were holding the Dream to an ice-cold 25-percent (four-of-16) from the floor. Part of that was the Minnesota defense, which scrambled to get a hand in McCoughtry’s face on every possession, and part was Atlanta’s reaction, as the Dream began rushing their shots and taking ill-advised ones. McCoughtry and Castro Marques, in particular, seemed all too willing to dribble straight into the middle of one-on-three and one-on-four coverage and heave up a shot, hoping to draw the foul, rather than looking for the open shooter.

Indeed, for all the frustrations that the Dream may have had about the officiating—many of them well-founded—it was the whistle that kept Atlanta on top in the third quarter, as the Dream made 14 trips to the line where they netted eight—half of their 16 points in the period.

Meanwhile, the Lynx visited the charity tripe just five times in the third quarter, though they made most of it, netting all five attempts. They also shot 46.7 percent (seven-of-15) from the field. The result: For the first period in the game, Minnesota outscored Atlanta, 19-16.

The other major outcome of the third period was the foul trouble piling up for both sides. It is worth remembering that though the impact of the tight officiating may have spelled greater trouble for Atlanta, both teams were feeling the pain. In the first half, Atlanta had been called for 14 fouls to Minnesota’s seven, but the third quarter made up for a bit of that, as the Lynx were actually whistled for more personals (nine) in that period than the Dream (five). As a result, heading into the final quarter, the disparity in foul calls was insignificant (19 personals for the Dream to 16 for the Lynx), and to that point, Atlanta had actually visited the free-throw line more often (25 times) than Minnesota (22).

Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson, the star of Game One, picked up three personals in the third period alone; Moore added two, to head to the final period with a total of five (more than any other player on the floor). For Atlanta, most of the weight fell on the Dream’s two bigs, as de Souza picked up two personals in the third and Lyttle added one, sending both into the fourth quarter carrying four fouls apiece.

Which brings us to fourth quarter and the question that will likely be debated vigorously by partisans of both sides: Did the officiating in the final period favor the Lynx? Was there home cooking at work? Or did Minnesota simply do a better job (finally!) of adjusting to the way the game was being called and of turning that to its own advantage?

Three things are clear: First, Atlanta was blown for 14 personal fouls in the fourth period alone—as many as they had picked up in the entire first half, and twice as many as Minnesota, which was called for just seven. 

For your consideration: At least four of those fouls called on Atlanta occurred in the final two minutes, when Atlanta was down by six or more (at times by as many as 10) and may well have been fouling intentionally to stop the clock and put Minnesota at the line in hopes of regaining possession. That doesn’t count the Sancho Lyttle foul—her sixth—on Augustus at 2:09 with the Dream down four, as it seems unlike that coming out of a timeout, with the score so close, and more than two minutes left to play, Meadors would have wanted to see one of her starting bigs foul out of the game simply to stop the clock. Still, even calling it four, not five, fouls down the stretch, a 10-7 disparity in whistles certainly appears less egregious than a 14-7 gap.

Second, way more of those whistles against the Dream resulted in shooting fouls, as the Lynx paid 24 visits to the line in the fourth quarter, to just seven for the Dream.

Third, Minnesota maximized that opportunity, netting 79.2 percent of its free throws for 19 points (substantially more than the margin of victory) in the fourth period, and 82.6 percent (38-of-46) for the game as a whole. In contrast, Atlanta netted just four-of-seven (57.1 percent) from the foul line in the fourth quarter, and a modestly better 65.6 percent (21-of-32) for the game. Those missed Atlanta free throws also account for more than the margin of victory.

Moreover, even the most rabid of fans can only blame the officials so far for Atlanta’s continued cold shooting, and questionable shot selection, come crunch time. The Dream outscored the Lynx from the field, 17-13, in the final period. But Atlanta netted just eight-of-23 attempts from the field (including one-of-five from beyond the arc) for a 34.8-percent field-goal shooting percentage in the fourth quarter. As the Lynx’ lead grew and the clock wound down, Atlanta seemed more and more desperate, and its shooting did not improve any as a result. McCoughtry, for all her record-breaking 38 points, was one of the chief offenders, heaving up seven attempts, including two from the arc, in the fourth period. Six of those were bricks, including both the long balls.

Minnesota, on the other hand, took just 12 shots from the field in that period, netting half (six) of them, including one-of-two attempted three-pointers.

That difference in fourth-quarter field-goal shooting accuracy also more than accounts for the final six-point spread.

In the end, more than anything else, what cost Atlanta the opportunity to even the series and sends the Dream home facing a three-game sweep for the second year in a row, was a four-minute loss of composure. Minnesota tied the game a little more than a minute into the final quarter, thanks to a traditional three-point play by Augustus, and a pair from the line by Whalen. On the other, McCoughtry missed two at the charity stripe and picked up two personals in a little over a minute, meaning that she would have to play less aggressively if she hoped to stay on the floor for the remainder of the period. (Price also picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of the quarter, sending her to the bench, though with far less impact on the final outcome for the Dream.)

From there, the game remained close, with the score tied three times, and small leads changing hands five times over the next five minutes. Lyttle picked up her fifth personal just past the halfway mark in the period, with Paris subbing in in her stead. After Augustus netted the two free throws from the Lyttle foul, Atlanta was still on top, 85-83.

But that’s when the wheels came off the bus for the Dream.

Moore, who was playing with five personals and also had to be cautious, netted a seven-footer to tie the score once again, at 85 apiece with just over four minutes left to play.

On the other end, McCoughtry missed a three-point attempt when Brunson blocked her shot. The Dream recovered, but turned it over on a shot-clock violation.

Augustus knocked down a 14-foot jumper; McCoughtry missed an eight-footer that she persisted in taking despite double coverage.

The Lynx rebounded, Paris fouled, and Meadors called a timeout, returning Price, de Souza and Lyttle to the floor for Paris, Bales and Castro Marques.

Brunson missed the first of two from the line, but netted the second to give the Lynx a three-point lead.

De Souza missed a 15-footer, and the Lynx recovered the team rebound.

Whalen ran out much of the shot clock, waiting for the right opportunity, then drove the lane, dropping one in off the glass. Harding fouled her in the process, and Whalen converted the free-throw to make it a six-point lead.

At the other end, Harding missed a short jumper, but de Souza grabbed the board. This time it was Whalen tagged for her fifth personal of the night, and McCoughtry made both ends of the one-and-one, making it a two-possession game, 91-87, Lynx, with two minutes and change to play.

Out of a Minnesota timeout, Lyttle fouled out, and Augustus netted both at the line, to make it a six-point Lynx lead.

Back at the other end, McCoughtry has two opportunities—a lay-up followed by a short jumper—and misses both. After Augustus grabs the board from her second miss, McCoughtry fouls her—whether intentionally or not, only McCoughtry knows, and Augustus, who as the scouting report would have told you is an 86.5 percent free-throw shooter, nails both at the stripe.

Atlanta with the ball back, Minnesota up eight, and a minute-and-a-half remaining, Harding misses a three-footer when Adair swats down her shot. Augustus grabs the loose ball, and Castro Marques sends her to the line, where she once again makes both.

On Atlanta’s next possession, Brunson fouls McCoughtry. At the line, McCoughtry makes the first and misses the second, and Moore grabs the rebound.

Though by now, the Lynx are up nine and, down to the final minute, the handwriting is on the wall, Wiggins opens the door a crack for the Dream, missing a bunny, grabbing her own miss, and then flubbing the put-back.

De Souza grabs the ball, and Castro Marques is well off the mark with her hasty three-point attempt.

Moore once again grabs the board and quickly gets the ball into the hand of her team’s best free-throw shooter, Augustus. Harding is forced to foul, and with a rare miss, Augustus makes only one of the pair, to restore the Lynx to a 10-point advantage, 98-88, with 40 seconds remaining.

De Souza grabs the board, and Harding cuts it to eight with a long-range jumper, though it’s a bit late now to be trading twos.

Castro Marques fouls to stop the clock, and Augustus once again is good for only one-of-two. But Atlanta can still gain no traction, as McCoughtry dives into traffic only to miss a five-footer, Price grabs the offensive board, and Harding misses a three-point attempt.

Brunson grabs the board, ultimately feeding it to Adair, who lays it in to break the century mark for Minnesota and set the lead at 11, with an equal number of seconds left to play.

It’s all over, though the fat lady hasn’t quite started to sing yet. Harding cuts it to nine, driving for a lay-up at the other end, then picks Augustus’s pocket and fires it to Castro Marques, who nets her only bucket of the quarter, a three-pointer, to set the final score at 101-95.

The point of reciting all the action in those final minutes? They are several. First, whatever the effect of the officiating may have been over the course of the game as a whole, the Dream still had every chance to go home with a win heading into those final four minutes.

Most (as noted above, at least four) of the seven fouls for which the Dream were called down that critical stretch were obviously intended to stop the clock. The Lynx were whistled for two of their own in that same span, but had no reason to foul intentionally. Once one discounts those intentional fouls, a three-to-two difference in whistles hardly seems the “robbery-by-ref” that the overall numbers may cause it to appear. 

That the Dream will now play the remainder of this series with their backs against the wall relates far more to their own poor marksmanship, and equally bad defense, down the stretch, than to the quality of officiating. Had they distributed the ball better, shot the ball better, made their free throws, maintained their composure and taken their time—as the Lynx did—especially down the stretch, they might well have emerged the victors.

Last season, Seattle was an overpoweringly dominant team, and a Finals sweep came as no surprise to most students of the game. This year, Minnesota is an excellent team, one that has played better than any other in the league throughout the season.

But as three-quarters worth of both Game One and Game Two showed, Minnesota is not so dominant, as compared to Atlanta, that a series sweep should be the foregone conclusion. True, it is a team that features outstanding talents, but then again, so does Atlanta.

What may make the difference in the end—as it does so often in sports—is mindset. As Minnesota prepared to embark on the fourth period down five, not having led since the first period, having failed to make much headway on the scoreboard despite a huge bump in defensive intensity out of the break, and having come up on the short end of the whistle twice as often as the Dream in the third quarter, the Lynx were a study in calm and composure.

As Reeve described her mindset, and that of her floor general Whalen at that point:

“We were right there. ... [Y]ou know, when you watch Lindsey and I have interaction, that’s the conversation - ‘We’re right there.’ We never felt like we were out of it. We were a couple of stops and scores away from turning the corner, so I never felt like it was out of reach, obviously.

“You know, we needed to get the combination of stops and scores, and once we got that, then, you know, we went on the plus side and were able to hang on.”

The Dream were in virtually the same situation at the two-and-a-half minute mark: Down five (six after Whalen netted the free-throw on Harding’s foul-in-the-process), and on the short end of the whistle at that point in the period. They also should have owned the confidence that comes with having led for most of the game, having answered every rally that the Lynx had thrown at them to that point.

Coach Meadors did not share what she and her players talked about at the various breaks in play. But what emerged on the floor was a team that looked frustrated, panicked and ultimately defeated. Whether, over the next two days, Meadors, one of the best coaches in the league, can get her players—who often feed off their emotions, but who have now shown how they can be eaten up by them as well—to rein in their anger, overcome their frustrations, get the officials out of their heads, own their own power to shape their destiny and play 40 minutes of basketball with poise and composure is something we won’t know until the final buzzer sounds on Friday.

Originally published Wed, October 05, 2011

Reader Discussion
Posted by Jacknabi October 10, 2011

This match was rocking! Both team players played there wonderful game. The players are so good for world championship.

Posted by Jacknabi October 10, 2011

This match was rocking! Both team players played there wonderful game. The players are so good for world championship.

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