MLK Day more than a day off, notes U-M coach

The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday only has been around for maybe two decades.  There are many of us who easily remembers the man, as well as the struggle to get him formally recognized in this country. 

During the regular Big Ten coaches weekly teleconference Monday, I asked Minnesota Coach Tubby Smith, the conference’s only Black head coach to speak on this day’s significance, especially from his players’ point of view.

“I am not sure they know the significance of the day — I am not sure that many people do,” responded Smith.  “I have a great appreciation for it. 

“Especially as an African-American, I know what Dr. King means to me,” continues Smith, the only active Black men’s coach to win a national championship.  “He fought across all areas for fairness to try to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots.  I grew up in the South, and went to school in North Carolina in the 60s when integration was just starting to take place.  Dr. Martin Luther King was one of the forerunners of trying to push for change, civil rights and the voting act.   He helped engineered that change but one person alone didn’t just do that.  Sometimes you have to seize the moment.”

Dr. King’s “ideals and willingness to serve and sacrifice” is something he wants his players, and others to fully understand and appreciate, says Smith. 

Nevertheless, honoring Dr. King through a national holiday is very important and he’s glad to see it, surmises the Gopher coach.    Smith adds that he’s looking forward to one day visiting the new King memorial in Washington, D.C.

“He (Dr. King) left a legacy that I am glad that this country (and) this society is recognizing  him (and) his contributions for what the way of life we have today,” concludes Smith as he wished me, “Happy King Day.” 

 

 

Purdue guard burned Minnesota

Sometimes you just can’t trust those scouting reports.

According to Minnesota Women’s Coach Pam Borton, Purdue senior guard Brittany Rayburn had been struggling from behind the three-point line — two-for-13, including oh-for-4 against the Gophers in their earlier meeting December 30 in West Lafayette, Ind.   

However, the six-foot Rayburn didn’t stick to the pre-game script, as she shot herself out of a slump Thursday night was a huge understatement:   all 16 field goal attempts were behind the arc, and Rayburn cashed in on all but four of them.   Her 38 points burned the host Gophers in a 72-55 win.

“She could not miss tonight,” bemoaned Borton afterwards.  “We didn’t have an answer for her.”

But Purdue, who swept the season series, answered every question on the Barn floor.  The Boilermakers improved to 13-0 when holding opponents to 60 points or less — Minnesota managed to score one more basket than they did in their 57-53 loss three weeks ago.   The visitors maintained their 33 percent opponents’ shooting percentage.  

“We couldn’t get comfortable,” admits U-M guard Rachel Banham, who posted a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds) — it was her second such effort in her 18-game college career.   

However, Minnesota’s 11-for-37  in shots in the paint, a second-long sore spot for this year’s Gophers hurt them all night long. 

Missed lay-ups “are really deflating,” says Borton, adding that her players must change their mindset in this category.

On the contrary , what really deflated her team Thursday night was a formerly three-point cold-shooting guard who instead drained outside shot after outside shot, and nary a two-point attempt.    It didn’t matter what defense — zone or a man flying at her, that Minnesota threw at Rayburn, who tripled her team-leading 13-point average: 

“Brittany was hot,” notes Purdue Coach Sharon Versyp.

“I just kept shooting,” adds Rayburn, who said after making her first two treys, her confidence improved.  “It felt good — the basket looked huge.”

You just can’t trust those unreliable scouting reports as Purdue (4-0) left Williams Arena still unbeaten in the Big Ten, Thursday’s loss dropped Minnesota to a break-even conference record (2-2).  

Finally — Gopher senior guard Kiara Buford moved to 12th on the school’s all-time scoring list — she only needed a basket on Thursday — Buford finished with eight points.  She now has 1,288 career points.

 

 

Maybe Minnesota isn’t that good after all

Years ago when you saw his suitcoat flying towards the bench, former Minnesota men’s basketball coach Clem Haskins was hot and bothered.  You also knew it was only seconds away before his players’ intensity joined their coach’s.

But on Sunday, Haskins’ successor — two coaches removed, looked like a man accepting his fate.  Tubby Smith just sat on his stool throughout the 79-66 contest, won by visiting Purdue. 

It was a Lysol’s special — the Gophers skunked up the Barn.  

The hosts had no answer for the hot-shooting Boilermakers, who only missed two of 12 three-pointers in the first half.   “We were late” defending the perimeter, said U-M junior forward Rodney Williams in a feeble attempt to explain the obvious after the game.

And it really didn’t matter that Purdue didn’t make any treys after halftime — the winning die already was casted.  Even after U-M cut a double-digit deficit — Purdue led as much as 18 points, to just seven with four minutes left, it still was clear that Minnesota looked overmatched than any time in Smith’s fifth season in Gopherland.

It was my first game in person since senior Trevor Mbakwe’s senior season prematurely ended with a torn ACL in his right knee against Dayton on November 27.   When that happened, I said Minnesota would be hard pressed to win without his huge presence. 

“Nobody can replace Trevor Mbakwe but we have to go on without him,” says sophomore guard Maverick Ahanmisi. 

A five-game winning streak in December without their heart and soul  gave Gopher fans false hope and fool’s gold.  That was last year.

Thus far this year Minnesota is oh-for-2012 — and oh-for-four in conference play.   Conceivably it might not be until the end of the month until the Maroon and Gold can walk off the court victorious. 

Even with Mbakwe, the Big Ten schedule would be tough but he gave the Gophers at least a fighting chance.   But without him Minnesota realistically don’t have a chance.  

And Minnesota’s Sunday performance apparently has resigned themselves to that fact.

“The Big Ten right now is the best conference in the country,” notes Ahanmisi. 

And according to the second-year guard, the Gophers to a man really thought they could compete with the best in the best.  

“Nobody could ever expect to lose four games in a row,” continues Ahanmisi,  “not even if it is in the Big Ten.  It is a real shock to us.”

And Purdue it seems was the mother lode in shocks:  the Boilermakers’ physical presence all night long “opened our eyes,” admits Ahanmisi.  “We backed down.”

Two Gophers who seemed to do this Sunday was Ralph Sampson III, the team’s tallest starter, and guard Julian Welch, who assumed the team’s scoring mantle after Mbakwe’s injury.   The two combined for six points on 3-for-7 shooting; the 6-11 Sampson’s only basket came 30 seconds into the second half, Welch’s second-only bucket came a minute later.   Otherwise they played like magicians and performed a disappearance act against Purdue.

“We have to be physical back,” Ahanmisi strongly suggests.

The Gophers (12-5, 0-4 Big Ten) recently have been criticized.   One column over the weekend suggested that fans’ patience for Smith might be wearing as thin as a bald head.

“I say it’s fair,” Ahanmisi said to me when asked about the criticism.  “People is going to say what they want to say, but we as a ball club know what we have been doing, and know how hard we have been working.”

Minnesota now hits the road this week — they haven’t won away from the Barn since the Gophers won two of three games in a Thanksgiving time tournament in Orlando, Florida. 

While the Gophers are telling us publicly that the season is not over yet:  “We have a whole lot of basketball games left to play — we can’t dwell on these last four losses,” surmises Williams.

The cold hard fact is  — the Gophers “is a real young ball club,” says Ahanmisi.

They also as well is not very good.

Lynx’s one win from title but Atlanta says: “It’s not over yet”

The finals — whatever the level or the sport, is where everything is heighten to a new level — on a national stage.

That was the case in the second game of the Minnesota-Atlanta WNBA championship series Wednesday in Minneapolis as two opposing players combined for over 80 points.

Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry set a WNBA Finals record with 38 points, breaking her own record from a year ago — 24 of them in the first half of Wednesday’s contest, only the second most points scored in a half — McCoughtry had 27 in the second half of Game 1 on Sunday.

“Every defender we threw at her did a great job of trying to get a hand in her face,” noted Minnesota guard Seimone Augustus.  “And even with that she made tough shots.”

“It’s just 38 points,” added McCoughtry.  “I don’t care about that.  I want to win a ring.”

Unfortunately, that win is now three wins away for her and the Atlanta Dream, while Minnesota only needs one — Wednesday’s 101-95 victory gave the Lynx a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series.

Augustus’ 36 points were the second most in a Finals game — only the second time two players on opposing teams passed the 30-point mark in a playoff game:  McCoughtry and New York’s Cappie Pondexter combined for 78 points in a playoff game last year.

In the battle of who was the most determined to put her team in the winning column, Augustus, the longtime Lynx player won the honor over an equally determined McCoughtry Wednesday night.

“I’m so happy the whole world got to see that,” says Lynx guard Candice Wiggins on Augustus’s performance. 

“I didn’t think I had to match Angel point-for-point,” admits the guard.  “It just happened that way.”

Nonetheless, chants of “M-V-P” rained from the 15,000-plus crowd while she was at the foul line in the fourth quarter — Augustus was there 13 times in 10 minutes. 

“We all know who the MVP is, it’s Tamika Catchings,” said Augustus when asked to comment about the crowd’s chanting.  “I want the title.”

“It was her will and her toughness,” marvelled Minnesota point guard Lindsay Whalen, who finished with 13 points.

“I don’t think this one performance dictate who she is,” added center Taj McWilliams-Franklin on Augustus.  “It so happened that her performances before no one really witnessed them because they weren’t in the playoffs or the finals.  I think for her it was just one great game — did what she needed to do to help her team win.”

As was the case in Game one, Minnesota’s fortitude wore down Atlanta again in the fourth quarter.  On Wednesday, the Lynx again got contributions from others not as heralded but just as needed.   Such as little used rookie Amber Harris, who hit a 22-foot three pointer to give Minnesota a two-point lead just under the seven-minute mark that seemingly took the wind out of the Dream. 

“Seimone didn’t use the screen, and I know that nobody was on me,” Harris told me — she finished with three points and three boards in just under five minutes — her first career playoff points.   “So I just shot it.”  

Such as reserve center Jessica Adair, who scored 13 points in 17 minutes off the bench on Wednesday, along with a team-high three blocked shots.   She was one of three players with double-figures trips to the foul line:  McCoughtry shot 16-for-21; Augustus was 13-for-16, and Adair was 9-for-11.

Augustus’ 14-footer broke a 85-85 tie with 3:20 left, which started a 6-0 run.   She had 15 fourth-quarter points as the Lynx outscored the Dream 32-21, shot 50 percent from the field and nearly 80 percent from the line.   

Although it’s not inconceivable, but Atlanta can get it back with two wins at home this weekend.   Game 3 is Friday.

“It’s not over yet,” predicts McCoughtry.

Those words should be Xeroxed and put in every Lynx player’s locker, playbook, whatever as they prepare to leave for Peachtree Street.  

“We have to come in (Atlanta) with a mindset that we’re down 0-2,” suggests McWilliams-Franklin, who banged knees with teammate Monica Wright and didn’t play at all in the final 10 minutes of Wednesday’s game — she did finish with 10 points and five rebounds.   Team surgeon Dr. Joel Boyd later told me that he will know more Thursday but think Minnesota’s oldest player’s knee only will be sore. 

“It’s a 40-plus minutes game,” believes Lynx guard Alexis Hornbuckle.  “If you are going to win a championship, every possession counts.”

As was the case on Sunday, Minnesota still having problems making key defensive stops early on — it doesn’t help that Atlanta isn’t easy to guard.  But giving up 58 first-half points — on 59 percent shooting, is unacceptable.

“I was disappointed overall in our defense,” admits Minnesota Coach Cheryl Reeve.  “We did defend better in the second half (because) they ended up shooting 29 percent in the second half, but we have to be better defensively, and we can be.  We have to play better.  We’re fortunate that we’re talking about the Lynx having a win.” 

However, what has stood gone well for the Lynx in this series is as Reeve points it, “the combination of stops and scores” in the two  fourth quarters that has proven the difference in consecutive games thus far.

As she was leaving the arena Wednesday, the second-year head coach told anyone standing in the hallway, including this reporter, that she doesn’t want to see us a week from now — that would mean Game 5, if necessary.

“This is a closeout game,” concludes Hornbuckle.  “It is always the hardest game, and it’s away.  We’re a good away team but it’s the playoffs.  They (Atlanta) is going to bring it.”

 

Lynx survived Atlanta’s ‘haymakers’ to win Finals Game 1

Rebekkah Brunson said it right when she told a reporter after Game 1 of the 2011 WNBA Finals that she was ready for bed.   She definitely earned a good night’s sleep.

Brunson scored a playoff career-high 26 points Sunday to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five championship series.  She cashed in  a 14-foot fade away jumper and a driving lay-up  in the deciding fourth quarter when the Lynx ran off 13 unanswered points to start the quarter, that finally held off Atlanta to win 88-74.

“She was really awesome tonight,” noted Lynx Guard Lindsay Whalen, whose three-point play sparked the baker’s dozen scoring.  “She (Brunson) made huge shots when we needed them tonight.  She really carried us.”

“I thought she set the tone,” adds Minnesota Coach Cheryl Reeve on Brunson, who also grabbed 11 rebounds, including a game-high five offensive ones — some of which the 6-2 forward chased down to give her squad an extra possession and a fresh shot clock.

Until that deciding fourth quarter, Sunday’s contest was literally like a prize-fight with Minnesota playing on its heels as the visiting Dream, led by Angel McCoughtry (33 points) and Lindsay Harding (20 points) threw haymakers at the hosts.

“They (Atlanta) threw the first punch,” noted Lynx Guard Candice Wiggins.  “I think in the third quarter and the fourth quarter, we started responding and we started attacking and being the aggressor.”

Atlanta at one point before halftime had a 12-point lead.  Although McCoughtry started slowly — only six points (2-of-5 shooting) at the half, Harding instead had 16 points, missing only three of her 10 shots at the time. 

However after intermission, Harding considerably cooled off while McCoughtry went nuts, scoring 19 of her team’s 23 third quarter points.  She also set a Finals record with 14 consecutive points, which broke a record set in 1999 by New York’s Crystal Robinson, who scored 13 straight points.

But as Wiggins earlier pointed out, Minnesota withstood the blows and  outscored Atlanta by three points in that quarter — both teams when back to their corners – I mean, respective benches, tied at 62 apiece.  

 “Once you take a shot,” continues Wiggins, “then you (take one) . . . it changes momentum.”

Minnesota then put its home court advantage to full use at the start of the final quarter:  Whalen broke the tie with a three-point play, followed by the 5-8 point guard getting one of the Lynx’s 11 blocks — a Finals team record, which forced a jump ball.   Whalen won the tip, and later got open to  hit a 15-footer.

Seimone Augustus then hit a 11-footer, then came Brunson’s two made baskets, and center Taj McWilliams-Franklin completed the scoring on a driving lay-up to put Minnesota up by 13 points with 5:44 remaining.   The winners outscored the Dream 26-12 in the final quarter, the lowest one-quarter output of either team Sunday — Minnesota only scored 14 in the opening 10 minutes.

“They made a run but we didn’t respond well to that,” admitted Atlanta Forward Iziane Castro Marques, who scored 10 points.

“We kept our home court advantage,” surmises McWilliams-Franklin, who logged 30 minutes, scored eight points and grabbed 10 boards while battling stomach flu all night long.

Augustus finished with 22 points, and Whalen had 15, with Maya Moore’s 11 points completed the four Minnesota players set in double figures.

“We need to carry (the team’s fourth quarter effort) into the next game, and start the game like that,” believes Wiggins. 

Nonetheless, Sunday’s Game One proves that this year’s Finals have two evenly matched teams, playing for the title.   Neither team won’t just lay down while the other steamroll past them or knock them into oblivion.

But obviously, adjustments must be made:  Minnesota can’t allow Harding to dictate where she wants to go as she did in the first half Sunday.   Also if they can limit McCoughtry to as few touches as possible — a tall order indeed, such as the Lynx did in the fourth quarter, this will force Atlanta to play more half-court, which is something they — and Minnesota for that matter, do not want to play.

Also, the Lynx must get more from its bench — all but Jessica Adair’s six points came from the starting five.  

Reeve concluded that things will be cleaned up before Wednesday rolls around.

“Game 2 will be a lot different,” she predicts. 

 

Controversy — be it QB or in volleyball — again rears ugly head

Whether it’s about football quarterbacks or volleyball setters — that sport’s equivalent of a QB, the so-called controversy always seems to surface, especially when things aren’t going well.   I always wonder if there really is one, or it is mostly media driven, then co-signed by fans.

First let’s look at football:  How can the 1-3 Minnesota Golden Gophers have a quarterback controversy?   Neither one — MarQueis Gray or Max Shortell haven’t impressed me enough to make a leap upon his growing bandwagon, calling for him to be the starter.   My opinion is that either Gray is the starter or if not, then make the change and move forward.  This dickering around that we have seen, including playing both of them in Saturday’s U-M-North Dakota State game, hasn’t made much headwind in my mind that I need to spend time pining for a switch.

However, if Gray is the Gophers’ QB, then give him the tools to do the job.  I have been bothered to hear ‘code words’ from the offensive coordinator that he — and I paraphrase — have to simplify things for the junior, who hasn’t played quarterback since high school.   Such words are usually associated when Black quarterbacks are discussed.

Now let’s move further downtown, as the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings have one less win and have played one less game than the Gopher gridiron players.   Three first half leads flip-flopped into three defeats.   One columnist in today’s Minneapolis daily now calls for a quarterback change from veteran Donovan McNabb to another first timer like Christian Ponder.  

Again is this a controversy initiated from the masses or more media grumbling?    After three straight losses — after being outscored 26-3 in the second half, including the winning field goal in Sunday’s 26-23 win by Detroit, seems to me that a defensive controversy instead should be discussed.

Now let’s go back to campus, where Sunday a student reporter asked Minnesota Volleyball Coach Laura Bush about a setter controversy after the Gophers four-set win over visiting Northwestern. 

After a 12-25 opening match set, Bush said, “We had to upgrade our passing.”  As a result she called upon freshman setter Kellie McNeil to replace starting setter Mia Tabberson.   The switch proved successful as the host Gophers rebounded in the next three sets to defeat the Wildcats.  

“Kellie brought a new energy and personality to the game,” noted sophomore hitter Ashley Wittman on McNeil, who had  33 assists in Sunday’s win.  It was U-M’s first Big Ten win of the season — they lost their conference opener Friday to Illinois.

“Any position on the court is a battle,” responded Bush to the reporter’s question about whether McNeil or the senior Tabberson will be the setter when Minnesota (8-3, 1-1 Big Ten) returns to action this Friday at Ohio State.   “Anyone can be replaced.

“We always give a player another chance,” continues Bush, “even after they had a poor night or poor match.  We usually give that starter another chance in the next match.”

As a result, unless things change this week, Tabberson will be in the lineup on Friday. 

Afterwards, I asked the interim head coach was there too much being made about her switching Sunday from the junior Tabberson to the frosh McNeil:

Bush admitted that the change could’ve backfired.  “But really it was the only change we could make,” she explained.  “We had a left side hitter (Hailey Cowles) who wasn’t doing so well in the first set.  We couldn’t keep going without the offense.”

As a result, Cowles’ kills-output drastically went from zero to five in set number two — she finished with 10 kills overall.  Ashley Wittman’s kill total also increased from just two in the first set to six in the second.  She had a match-high 20 kills against the Wildcats.

“I may regret this,” says Bush on her move, “but Mia is a veteran and I have no doubts that she will bounce back, will battle it out and keep going.”

There you have it — a coach who’s willing to stand up to the controversy theorists, which seemingly reporters love to be prime-time members, and refuse to fuel the fire, or throw their player under the bus.

It seems the case for Vikings Coach Leslie Frazier, who insist that McNabb still is his starter, and not so much on Gray, as we learned today that Gopher Coach Jerry Kill has more important things on his mind — his health, to address media inquiries about his starting quarterback.

I sincerely hope that Gray is given a full chance to prove his mettle, as opposed to a quick hook that some are silently, or in many cases, are openly advocating.  Either you believe in him — or more importantly, the coaches believe in him or they don’t.

Everyone always wants the backup in the game — up until the second-stringer gets in, then the so-called advocates become instant turncoats when nothing changes.  They often refuse to look beyond and below the surface to really see what’s going on.

Which doesn’t seem to be happening both with the Vikings and the Gophers — maybe the fact that their respective squads aren’t that good should be more discussed.

Finally, in the case of volleyball, the coach made a move and it worked.  End of controversy — it’s time to get back to work. 

“We’re still talking about the same things,” concludes Bush on she and her staff’s coaching to date.  “I don’t like calling out the offense, and I know (assistants) Chris (Tamas) and Alfee (Reft) don’t like calling out the defense every time.

“We got to be maturing in the game so we can continue to gain some advantage as we move to the Big Ten,” Bush points out.

 

Lynx needed every single point in elimination game win

Most likely, the local papers will hardly mention Jessica Adair, but the second-year player in her first full pro season, had as much to do with Minnesota’s 85-67 elimination game win Tuesday over San Antonio as anyone else wearing a Lynx uniform.

The 6-4 Adair scored a three-point play in the Lynx’s second quarter 17-0 run  that gave the hosts the lead for good.  But actually her first shot, a lay-up with 37 seconds left in the first quarter was just as huge because it briefly tied the game.

“I felt I did well in the first quarter,” Adair told me after the game.  She replaced starter Taj McWilliams-Franklin at the 3:18 mark and finished the quarter.  Her offensive put-back, and Seimone Augustus’ driving lay-up with six seconds remaining brought Minnesota to within one.  

Adair scored her remaining points late in the first half:  a short turnaround jumper, and finished with seven points.  She also had four rebounds, and three turnovers — all came on a Silver Stars player stripping the ball from her.

“I got to do a better job” protecting the ball “and go “to the hole harder,” Adair says afterwards.  That season-long problem most likely will be addressed at Wednesday’s practice, which if it wasn’t for her and others, Minnesota wouldn’t be looking at this until next spring.

“She’s a great force off the bench,” notes Lynx guard Candice Wiggins on Adair.  “She is very important for our team.”

San Antonio’s fast start — a 10-2 run, to begin Tuesday’s  game at first looked like the higher-seeded Lynx would play its final game of the year — up to this point, and this include their Game 1 two-point win last week, Minnesota virtually have allowed the fourth-seeded Silver Stars to have their way.

Wiggins recalls,  “I was so mad on the bench today. I’m watching like you are watching, and everybody in the stands are watching.”   She pointed out that in order for them to win this night, the Lynx had to fast remember what got them there:

Team basketball.   Sharing the ball.  Not totally relying on one (Augustus) or two (Augustus and Lindsay Whalen) to do the heavy lifting in these playoffs, which has been the case throughout the first-round series.

“Everybody had to have everybody’s back,” surmises Wiggins.

And they did:  Although Augustus was Tuesday’s high scorer with 22 points, she also grabbed eight tough rebounds and played some hellish defense.

Although Whalen only took three shots — making two of them, they all came in the fourth quarter.  Her last shot, which came late in the game, had all the markings of a player not ready to go home — or in the case of most WNBA players, go overseas for the winter.

Did she will that one in, I asked:  “I did,” admits the guard.  “I was pretty tired, and I knew I was coming out.   I got a little scoop to go in — I was actually surprised that it went in — when I let it go, I thought it might be a little short.   Then I was ready to sit down and take a breather.

“It was the time when I knew that each point is going to be big, and at a point where they (San Antonio) couldn’t come back,” continues Whalen.  “When I put that one in, I knew that probably we would get the win.”

Although they only combined for 16 points in the first two playoff games, McWiliams-Franklin (16 points) and Rebekkah Brunson (15 points) combined Tuesday for 31 points.

Maya Moore scored nine of her 14 points in the pivotal second quarter, when Minnesota outscored the visitors 26-17 to capture the lead for good. 

“I thought we were going to win . . . you could see it in everybody’s eyes,” notes Adair.

Although the 18-point win for Minnesota, who now faces Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals on Thursday, will be made to look impressive in Wednesday’s newspapers by the local BWM (bandwagon media), they probably won’t make note that each of the Lynx’s 85 points — from Augustus to little-used Charde Houston, who got in the scoring column with her first-ever playoff basket with almost a minute and a half left in the game, were important.  It didn’t matter who scored them.  

“We were focused,” says Adair.

Minnesota finally overcame its first-round playoff demons — this was the franchise’s first post-season advancement.  It should be duly noted that it happened because the Lynx finally was able to dictate the action on both ends against a very good San Antonio club, who easily could have walked away with the series.

“No celebration necessary,” notes Brunson.  “We advanced and that’s good, but we haven’t done anything yet.”

Nonetheless, the Lynx gets to come to work Wednesday.

“I’m not ready to go fishing yet,” surmises Adair.

Thoughts and insights on sports and society from a Black perspective. By Charles Hallman

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