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He’s a Hellova of a good horse

Tasmanian warhorse Hellova Street notched his 20th victory with a typical fighting performance but there was a difference to this win as it was the first time he was trained by Patrick Payne.

Scott Brunton, who had trained him from his debut at Devonport in 2013 and for 19 wins and 57 starts for $1,197, 075, decided recently he couldn’t keep travelling him across Bass Strait on the Spirit Of Tasmania because as a nine-year-old it was too tough on him and transferred him to Payne.

Hellova Street employed his usual front running tactics as he defied his rivals attempts to run him down as he added another $90,000 to his stakes earning.

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Hellova Street ($19) defeated Iconoclasm ($11) by one and three quarter lengths with Admiral’s Joker ($6) a length and a quarter away third.

It gave in-form jockey Michael Dee his second win in a row in the Golden Mile as he also won last year on $19 chance Haripour.

Dee was full of praise for Hellova Street saying “he’s very tough and honest”.

“He tries hard and we were able to get a nice lead today. I thought the horse that sat outside me (Iconoclasm) had me on the turn but he kicked into another gear and was too strong,” Dee said.

Dee said Patrick Payne’s instructions were for him to keep rolling along in front on Hellova Street in on a long rein.

Tasmanian old-timer Hellova Street just doesn’t know when to stop as he claims the Bendigo Golden Mile.Source:AAP

“The only horse I was concerned about was the second horse and once I was able to regain the lead from that horse I couldn’t hear anything else coming so I knew I had it in the bag,” Dee said.

Dee made it a winning double with a brilliant ride to win the last race on Big Night Out.

Mornington trainer Matt Laurie targeted the $150,000 Bendigo Guineas (1400m) with Riddle Me That and was pleased he was able to tick it off with a fighting win.

Laurie said Riddle Me That was a smart and tough horse after his narrow victory.

“He has got that galloping style where he really gets his nose out and that was enough to get the job done today,” Laurie said.

Michael Dee returns to scale after his winning ride on Hellova Street.Source:AAP

Laurie said he hadn’t planned beyond winning the Bendigo Guineas with Riddle Me That.

He said Daniel Stackhouse’s ride to win on was a great one as he slotted him into a perfect spot. Stackhouse though said he didn’t think things worked out perfectly in the early stages.

“He relaxed nicely and was able to get balanced and work through his gears. He toughed it out and he keeps improving every time he steps out,” Stackhouse said.

Riddle Me That ($4.20) defeated Score ($11) by a short half head with Zousonic ($31) the same distance away third.

Jockey John Allen rides Swats That to victory in the Bendigo Vobis Gold Rush.Source:AAP


Two-year-old filly Swats That lived up to Leon Corstens’ expectations that she had above average ability with an impressive effort to win the $250,000 VOBIS Gold Rush (1000m).

Swats That ($6), who was ridden by John Allen, settled midfield and then sprinted clear of her rivals over the closing stages to win by a length and three quarters over Bella Nipotina ($8) with the same margin away in third placing Masseuse ($7).

Corstens said the daughter of Shamus Award she had won trials but he wasn’t certain what she was going to produce at her debut and he was surprised she settled off the speed.

He said in her two trials she had led so he was pleased that she was able to settle off the speed and then sprint home to win.

“I thought she’d be a bit more on the pace than she was. There were no instructions. He’s (Allen) ridden the filly in two trials, so he knew what to do.”

“Today she was off the pace and worked home well. We’re hoping (she’s got a lot more in her).”

An obvious target for her is $950,000 The Showdown (1200m) at Caulfield on April 18.

Her jockey John Allen said he knew she was a nice filly but it had been hard to get a gauge on how smart she was from the trials as she hadn’t ever been off the bridle.






Racing at Bendigo was closed to the general public because of the coronavirus.Source:AAP


By Glenn McFarlane

Racing has always craved clear air on an exceptionally crowded sporting calendar, but it wasn't supposed to happen this way.

Australian racing — headlined by silent stands at Rosehill and Bendigo and a massive off-track audience desperate for a distraction — remains one of the few sports operating in a world transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

But, as Bruce McAvaney conceded, the industry hangs by a thread in uncertain times.

“We know we are hanging by a thread, we understand that,” McAvaney told Channel 7.

“It is a unique sport that can probably survive for a long time, as long as we don't have a problem.”

The “problem” would be a positive coronavirus test for one of the limited participants still allowed on tracks — jockeys, trainers, strappers and stable staff.

As a result, racing authorities are doing everything in their powers to limit exposure.

Each race day we get through is considered a blessing for the more than 200,000 people nationwide whose livelihoods depends on the show going on.

The sport dodged a bullet during the week when leading jockey Mark Zahra returned a negative test after being exposure on a flight to Victoria on March 12.

Racing Victoria is working closely with the Government, health authorities, medical experts and stakeholders to navigate this unprecedented challenge.

Lindsay Park's Tom Dabernig on Saturday night praised Racing Victoria's commitment to the health and welfare of the participants and thoroughbreds alike.

Snogging proves too strong in the Bendigo Gold Bracelet.Source:AAP

“Under the circumstances, everyone is working hard to try and make sure for all the participants and public that we can keep the racing going,” Dabernig said.

“The most important thing is the health and safety of the participants and the welfare of the horses.

“In trying times, it is a testament to the racing industry how they have handled it. I cannot praise Racing Victoria enough.”

Chris Waller, whose star mare Verry Elleegant thrust her name into Caulfield and Melbourne Cup calculations with a dominant Tancred Stakes win, said he couldn't fault how the industry had responded,

“We are showing we can put on a responsible show and keep everyone at home interested,” Waller said.

Michael Dee rode a double at Bendigo, scoring back-to-back Golden Mile wins, when Tasmanian Hellova Street scored in the $150,000 race.

Verry Elleegant dominates Tancred Stakes

Horse Racing: Chris Waller-trained mare Verry Elleegant showed her class with a crushing victory in the Group 1 Tancred Stakes at Rosehill Gardens.



Punters were reeling in the opener when the heavily tried favourite Grand Promenade ($2.15) could only managed fourth.

The Ala ‘Simmo’ Simpson Tribute (2400m) was dominated by the Maher & Eustace runner from a betting perspective, going around with nearly 75 per cent of the total investment.

Making a sustained run from the back of the field, the fav couldn’t make up the ground on Budd Fox ($4.40-$6.50) which raced much closer to the action.

The Jess Eaton-ridden galloper was the second most popular in terms of money, however, Budd Fox only held a tenth of the support that the favourite did.

BETS: Budd Fox $1000 e/w @ $6/$1.95, $1000 @ $6.50

BETS: Grand Promenade $1000 @ $2.30, $1500 e/w @ $2.20/$1.26, $2000 @ $2.15, $5,000 @ $2.10, $1900 @ $2.10


In a fairly open betting affair it was Beautiful Flyer that just held on to take out the second event on the card.

Brad Rawiller threw everything at the daughter of Solo Flyer in holding off Arctic Shock ($14) and Midas Prince ($81).

Villa Sarchi, which flew home from near last for fourth, was the big mover on the day. At 9am, he was $11 and bottomed out at $7 before starting an $8 chance.

Write Your Name held the most money and was twice as popular as anything else in the event.

BETS: Turn The Tide $1500 @ $6.50

BETS: Villa Sarchi $1000 @ $8


Coruscate proved successful in the Underground Cabling System BM84 Handicap (1100m).

Despite tracking wide for a good portion of the race, Coruscate (8-$7.50) got the money for his admirers and was one of the better supported gallopers in the event.

Only Redcore ($9-$7) and Simply Optimistic ($5-$7) held more than the winner.

Grandview Avenue ($9-$7.50) had admirers at each way odds and was one of few firmers in the event.

BETS: Coruscate $1500 e/w @ $7/$2.60

BETS: Simply Optimistic $4000 @ $6.50

BETS: Redcore $1,000 @ $7 MULTIPLE TIMES

BETS: Terbium $1,400 @ $7.50, $1000 @ $7.50

BETS: Grandview Avenue $1450 e/w @ $7.50/$2.60

BETS: Reward With Return $1500 @ $51


The well supported debutante Swats That swept to victory over the concluding stages in the Smartline Bendigo Vobis Gold Rush (1000m).

Very solid at the $6.50 for most of the day, Swats That was given a great run by John Allen before issuing a strong challenge down the straight, overhauling Bella Nipotina ($7) late after it was four-wide the trip.

Masseuse ($6.50) was a fair way back in third.

River Night ($5-$4-$4.40) was easily the most popular runner in terms of money held, going around with double the amount compared to the next best supported which was Masseuse.

BETS: Swats That $300 x $1500 e/w @ $6/$2.20

BETS: River Night $1000 @ $4

BETS: Strad $1000 e/w @ $18/$4.40

BETS: Masseuse $1500 @ $6, $1000 @ $6


Skiddaw attracted some late interest which proved to be spot on for the running of the URMG Security 3YO Handicap (2200m).

The Danny O’Brien-trained runner was $5.50-$4.60 late, however, just before the jump got back out to $5.

Carrying a number of good investments, jockey Damian Lane was three-wide for a good portion of the trip on the son of Hinchinbrook but still proved too strong at the finish.

Adelaide Ace ($3.10), which led and weakened, went around with more than double the amount of money than the winner, which was second best supported along with Royal Crown ($5).

BETS: Skiddaw $1500 @ $5, $1,000 @ $5 TWICE

BETS: Hey Mighty $1000 @ $10

BETS: Royal Crown $5000 @ $5, $2,000 @ $5, $1000 @ $5 MULTIPLE TIMES

BETS: Adelaide Ace $1000 @ $3.10

BETS: Belix $1,000 e/w @ $13/$3.40



Riddle Me That takes out the Bendigo Guineas in a thrilling finish.Source:AAP


Riddle Me That arrived in time to land the prize in the Jayco Bendigo Guineas (1400m).

Going around as one of the more popular runners, with only Spend ($4.80-$4) holding more, Riddle Me That ($5-$4.20) arrived in time thanks to a gem of a ride by Daniel Stackhouse to knock off Score ($11) which kept fighting along the inside after trailing the leader.

Zousonic ($34) added plenty of spice to the exotics just in front of the favourite Spend.

Of the others, Vegas Jewel ($11-$12-$7.50) was a notable firmer throughout the day.

BETS: Riddle Me That $1000 @ $4.20


Hellova Street led throughout at decent odds to take out the Golden Mile (1600m) at Bendigo.

The Patrick Payne-trained runner went $13-$18 on the day and although attracting some interest at the each way odds, was largely ignored in preference for several other horses.

Michael Dee rated the nine-year-old a treat to knock off Iconoclasm ($19-$12) which was tried at a price, with Admirals Joker ($6) winding up in third.

Princess Jenni ($4.20-$4.60) held the most money in front of So Si Bon ($6).

BETS: Admirals Joker $2200 @ $5

BETS: Iconoclasm $2000 @ $12

BETS: Odeon $1000 e/w @ $8/$2.70

BETS: Gold Fields $2000 e/w @ $17/$4.60

BETS: Princess Jenni $2200 @ $4.60, $2000 @ $4.60, $1000 @ $4.60


It was the short way home for most TAB customers with Big Night Out saluting in the Mitchelton Winery BM90 Handicap (1400m).

Starting the day as a $2.40 favourite, sheer weight of money saw it bottom out at even money before he started $2.15.

The John Sadler runner was nearly four times as popular as anything else including second pick Jumbo Ozaki ($4).

Michael Dee weaved his way through the field to score handsomely in the end over Jumbo Ozaki, which was wide throughout, and Reserve Street ($41).

BETS: Big Night Out $2500 @ $2.15 MULTIPLE TIMES, $2000 @ $2.15 MULTIPLE TIMES, $1000 @ $2.15 MULTIPLE TIMES, $1,500 @ $2 MULTIPLE TIMES, $1000 @ $2

Originally published asHe’s a Hellova of a good horse

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Coronavirus: Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill says fans must follow guidelines

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill urged fans to follow the Government’s advice amid the battle against coronavirus.

On what would have been the eve of Northern Ireland’s Euro 2020 qualifying play-off semi-final against Bosnia, O’Neill wrote an open letter to supporters.

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The boss expressed his and the squad’s disappointment at not playing, but took the opportunity to reinforce the government’s message.

“Football players, managers and coaches are not immune to the potential effects of this deadly virus,” O’Neill said in a statement.

“We have family members and friends who are classed as vulnerable. We care for them deeply and don’t want them to come to any harm.

“We can help keep our loved ones safe by working together in tackling the spread of COVID-19 and following the guidelines issued by the Government and the health authorities. It is in everyone’s best interests to do so.”

The manager expressed that he was sure the team would be able to count on the supporters of the Green And White Army (GAWA) as they look to qualify for the now-postponed tournament.

He added: “In the meantime, though, we all need each other’s help and support. Please keep in touch with friends and family by using remote technology such as phone, internet and social media.

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Mets’ Syndergaard to have Tommy John surgery

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    Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”

New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and will undergo Tommy John surgery this week, the team announced Tuesday.

Dr. David Altchek will perform the surgery Thursday at the Hospital for Special Surgery, according to the Mets.

“After experiencing discomfort in his elbow before spring training was suspended due to the pandemic, Noah and our health and performance department have been in constant contact,” Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said in a statement. “Based on the persistence of his symptoms, Noah underwent a physical examination and MRI that revealed the ligament tear. A second opinion from Dr. Neal ElAttrache confirmed the diagnosis and the recommendation for surgery.

“Noah is an incredibly hard worker and a tremendous talent. While this is unfortunate, we have no doubt that Noah will be able to return to full strength and continue to be an integral part of our championship pursuits in the future.”

Syndergaard, 27, who is one of the hardest-throwing starting pitchers in baseball history and has among the best arsenal of pitches in the game, was expected to anchor the Mets’ rotation alongside ace Jacob deGrom.

Syndergaard threw a career-high 197⅔ innings last season, and while his ERA was a career-worst 4.28, the combination of good health and stuff foretold good things.

The health end did not hold up, and Syndergaard will be sidelined until April 2021 at the earliest — and more likely until the early summer. He is the second high-profile pitcher to need Tommy John surgery in recent days, with Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale also confirming he would undergo the elbow reconstruction surgery.

Syndergaard, acquired by the Mets in 2012 when they traded Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey to Toronto, was an instant phenom. His fastball consistently hit 100 mph, he ripped off sliders as fast as 93 mph, and he struck out 166 batters in 150 innings as a 22-year-old rookie in 2015. His best year came in 2016, when he was an All-Star and posted a 2.60 ERA in 183⅔ innings.

Injuries wiped out most of Syndergaard’s 2017 season and shortened his 2018. He planned to join deGrom and Marcus Stroman atop the Mets’ rotation, with Steven Matz, Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha filling out the last two spots.

With baseball sidelined until at least May because of the coronavirus outbreak, the Mets now won’t have to choose among the final three for a rotation spot. Their prospects for 2020, which were bright during a strong spring, got that much more difficult in a National League East with the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals, defending division winner Atlanta Braves and a Philadelphia Phillies team with playoff aspirations.

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Smaller golf tours playing through virus outbreak

PHOENIX — Anna Nordqvist drained a birdie putt on the second playoff hole, pumped her fist and gave a slight wave to the half-dozen people clapping near the green. The tournament title in hand, the two-time major champion turned to playing partner Lisa Pettersson and hesitated.

The customary postround hug was out of the question, so the Swedish players touched elbows and walked off the green with a laugh.

The major golf tours may have shut down during the coronavirus outbreak, but a handful of mini tours are playing through.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of people questioning why we’re playing, but everyone is playing golf anyway,” Nordqvist said after winning a Cactus Tour event at Moon Valley Country Club on Friday. “Everyone got their own cart or they’re walking, you keep your distance and the golf course is a great place to be right now.”

The spreading coronavirus caused a ripple effect across the sports landscape, as just about every major sport postponed or canceled events and seasons. The LPGA joined the fray, postponing tournaments scheduled through the end of April and pushing the ANA Inspiration, its first major of the season, to September.

The Cactus and Outlaw tours have pushed on in Arizona, which has among the fewest coronavirus cases in the United States with around 64.

The Outlaw Tour, a men’s tour with events across the Phoenix area, held a three-day tournament this week at Western Skies Golf Course in Gilbert. Jared de Toit, a PGA Tour Latinoamerica player, shot a final-round 59 on Thursday but lost in a playoff to fellow Canadian Wil Bateman.

Nordqvist shot a final-round 66 at Moon Valley to tie Pettersson and won the event with a roughly 12-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole. England’s Holly Clyburn won an Eggland’s Best Tour event in Lake Mary, Florida, this week.

“It’s definitely strange, but we’re taking precautions,” Pettersson said.

The Cactus Tour’s Moon Valley stop featured a limited field of 27 players and had preventative measures in place to protect from the coronavirus.

All carts were sanitized before each of the three rounds, and the players who didn’t walk were limited to one per cart. The players were asked to space out on the course to follow social distancing guidelines, and the postround hugs often found in women’s golf were replaced by waves — and one last high-elbow.

Even the group photo at the end had social distancing; Cactus Tour director Mike Brown had the players stand arm’s length apart before taking the picture.

“We followed all the guidelines,” Brown said. “It’s safer for them for a chance of getting something doing what I did because they’re all individuals, not cramming into a golf cart right next to someone. But we’re obviously keeping an eye on how things go.”

The Cactus Tour has been an early stepping stone for LPGA players since its inception in 2005, holding women’s tournaments across the Southwest, primarily in Arizona. The tour added the tournament at Moon Valley to its schedule this week and two others after players started calling Brown.

The tour has events scheduled through a tournament Aug. 3-5 in Beaumont, California.

“The girls wanted to play. I didn’t call any one of them,” Brown said. “They want to play, and they’re already playing anyway. I’ve gotten some bad press, but with all the things that are going on, they’re already playing.”

The LPGA Tour’s U.S. schedule typically kicks into full gear in the spring, but now players are scrambling to find places to play.

Nordqvist tied for 25th at the Women’s Australian Open on Feb. 13-16. She led last week’s Outlaw Tour event — as the only woman in the 56-player field — after an opening-round 64 before tying for 28th at Moon Valley. Nordqvist stayed in the Phoenix area and picked up a win worth $2,000 in the Cactus Tour, which she hadn’t played since 2009.

“It’s been a rough stretch, obviously,” she said.

At least she and other players have a place to play — for now.

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What would NBA schedule look like in potential summer return? Breaking down options and obstacles

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged on Thursday the 2019-20 season may not resume because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"Of course it’s possible," Silver said on TNT’s Inside the NBA. "I just don’t know more at this point."

With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday recommending no gatherings of 50 people or more for at least the next two months, the NBA may be getting closer to the possibility of a season with no championship awarded.

The NBA office is working overtime to put together scheduling models that account for playing some remaining regular-season games or no regular-season games and starting the playoffs when it is deemed safe to resume games.

The league wants to salvage the season, and it is going to operate under that idea until it plays games again this season or is forced to cancel the season.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, and yet in unprecedented times, health and safety will guide decisions.

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Disgraced Bulldogs pair face nervous wait on their NRL fate

Disgraced Canterbury players Jayden Okunbor and Corey Harawira-Naera could be waiting until next week to learn their fate should they respond to NRL breach notices by 5.30pm on Tuesday.

It comes as senior Bulldogs players Josh Jackson and Aiden Tolman voice their concerns for the duo facing further suspension or deregistration.

Canterbury players Jayden Okunbor and Corey Harawira-Naera. Credit:NRL Photos, AAP

Okunbor and Harawira-Naera were stood down by the NRL for taking teenage schoolgirls back to the team hotel for sex while in camp in Port Macquarie last month, breaking the game's code of conduct.

The duo are expecting heavy penalties, including deregistration, and have not been training with the team as they await their fate.

Their actions are not subject to a criminal investigation.

While he doesn't condone their behaviour, Bulldogs captain Jackson said he is concerned for the wellbeing of Okunbor, 23, and Harawira-Naera, 24, no matter what the punishment is.

"I will say those two guys, (what they did) doesn't reflect us as a club, it doesn't reflect our values and it doesn't reflect those guys' character as well," he said. "We've got to make sure that we're careful here because they're young guys who've made a really bad decision, doesn't mean they're bad people, and we've got to make sure their welfare and their mental state is really looked after as well.

"We've got to be supportive of that."

The scandal has cost the club a major sponsorship deal with Rashays, believed to be worth $2 million.

The Bulldogs are now without a front of jersey sponsor heading into round two.

Although disappointed, Tolman echoed Jackson's concern and said while he has an opinion on the punishment the pair should face, he won't voice it publicly.

"It's a very difficult situation, they've obviously done the wrong thing and let down the team and the club and everyone else involved in it, the fans, the members, but in saying that too, they're really good people," he said. "For me, this is well out of character for what they both bring to this club.

"What's more important for me is making sure their welfare is all right.

"There's going to be some harsh calls come down and they need to know what they did was wrong, and not right, but in saying that too they're still people, we still need to make sure we're there to support them during this time."

"It's frustrating for this to happen right on the NRL season, but it has. I've got my opinion, I don't want to say it, I don't want to get drawn into that comment at the moment."


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NBA commissioner Adam Silver says shutdown will be at least 30 days for coronavirus

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league’s coronavirus-related hiatus will last at least 30 days and that his decision to suspend and not cancel the season was a split-second move, believing it was premature to cancel the season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus.

Still, Silver left open the possibility that the NBA doesn’t play another game this season.

“This literally changes hour by hour in terms of what we know,” Silver said. “It was really a moment for us to step back, take a deep breath and ensure that everyone in the NBA community was safe and healthy and doing everything they needed to do to care for their families. And then give us some time (to) deliberate and figure out if there’s a way that we can resuming playing at some point.”

Silver appeared on TNT’s Inside the NBA with Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal. Charles Barkley joined via phone.

Asked by Johnson if it is possible the 2019-20 season does not resume, Silver said, “Of course it’s possible. I just don’t know more at this point. There’s another factor that may go to the seasonality of this virus. We’ve talked to a lot of experts and some have a theory that it’s, as with the common flu as the weather changes, we may begin to see it peter out a little bit. Again, we don’t know.”

Gobert’s teammate, Donovan Mitchell, also tested positive for the virus.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made his first public remarks since he suspended the season. (Photo: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports)

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On the show, Barkley said he has been tested for COVID-19 and is self-quarantining for 48 hours. He said he has not received results of the test.

Silver had a conference call earlier Thursday with team presidents and general managers to discuss procedural operations for teams and players.

“Understandably, some of the players play in a market but their families may live in another city,” Silver said. “Will they be rejoining their families? What’s the best way to keep them safe? What’s the best way to keep them in shape? All of those things are still on the table because this has happened so quickly.”

Through March 16, players have been told to remain in market and stay at their home. Teams also are not permitted to conduct practices.

Silver was unable to say if the league would resume with regular season games or go straight to the playoffs scheduled to begin April 18 and the Finals on June 4.

Silver said the NBA and National Basketball Players Association need to do “what makes sense here without compromising anyone’s safety, and it’s frankly too early to tell.”

Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter.

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Michael O’Neill: Northern Ireland could be boosted by no Bosnia fans at Euro 2020 play-off

Michael O’Neill believes Northern Ireland could benefit if their scheduled Euro 2020 play-off semi-final away to Bosnia and Herzegovina is played behind closed doors later this month.

The Bosnian Football Federation on Tuesday postponed ticket sales for the match due to ongoing fears over the spread of the coronavirus, suggesting the match is likely to take place without fans if it goes ahead as scheduled at all.

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Having experienced a partisan Bosnian home crowd when Northern Ireland lost 2-0 in Sarajevo in the Nations League in October 2018, O’Neill admitted the lack of a crowd in Zenica on March 26 could help his side.

“We played Bosnia in the Nations League and while it was a small stadium the atmosphere was very intimidating, very patriotic,” O’Neill said. “From that point of view, for our sake, it is something slightly to our advantage.”

Despite the news coming from Bosnia, O’Neill said he would continue his preparations as normal, having on Tuesday named a 26-man squad which sees Jordan Jones and Conor Washington return from injury.

“Having been involved in international football for eight years I know you can have the best preparation in the world going into a game, but ultimately it’s what happens in the week going into a game that matters most, whether down to player availability or whatever situation you’re faced with,” O’Neill added.

“This is another situation that’s not really in our control so dwelling on it too much is not really beneficial.”

Bosnia beat Northern Ireland both home and away in the Nations League but are under new management since then, with Dusan Bajevic having replaced Robert Prosinecki in December.

From a Bosnia perspective, there are fears the coronavirus outbreak could leave Bajevic without his two most influential players against Northern Ireland.

Edin Dzeko (Roma) and Miralem Pjanic (Juventus) play their club football in Serie A and may find themselves in the same situation as Wales’ Aaron Ramsey, who is expected to miss his country’s upcoming friendlies against Austria and the United States due to the lockdown in Italy.

“Naturally that would be a boost, but we can’t really rely on that situation,” O’Neill said. “I’m sure the Bosnian FA will be doing everything possible to get them out of the country. It’s something that is not really a concern to us.”

From his own perspective, O’Neill’s only major absentee at this stage is Corry Evans, who required surgery on his frontal lobe and eye socket after suffering a fractured skull in January.

“No doubt he’s a loss because he gives us flexibility, whether we play him in a central area or on the right,” O’Neill said.

“He’s such a good player tactically, he’s good when you don’t have the ball, good in the pressing game when you need someone to nullify the threat of an opposition. It’s a big blow, especially given the nature of the injury.”

Northern Ireland squad

Goalkeepers: Peacock-Farrell (Burnley), McGovern (Norwich City), Carson (Motherwell)

Defenders: Evans (Leicester City), Cathcart (Watford), McLaughlin (Sunderland), Lewis (Norwich City), Smith (Hearts), Flanagan (Sunderland), Brown (Livingston)

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Tiger skipping Players because back isn’t ready

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Tiger Woods is skipping next week’s Players Championship, raising major concerns about his ability to prepare for his Masters title defense next month, and more importantly, the overall state of his fitness in the wake of four back surgeries.

Woods complained of back stiffness three weeks ago in Los Angeles, where he finished last among players who made the cut at the Genesis Invitational and elected to skip the WGC-Mexico Championship.

But he didn’t figure to take a pass on the Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s flagship tournament, unless something is amiss.

“Back just not ready,” said Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, in a text to ESPN. “Not concerning long term, just not ready.”

Woods did not offer any public comment. Last week Steinberg said that Woods was “not quite ready” to play at this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Now what?

Woods has maintained since playing a heavy schedule in 2018 after coming back from April 2017 spinal fusion surgery that he would be limiting the number of tournaments he played. Last year, he played just 12 during the 2018-19 season and then played three times in the fall, winning the Zozo Championship for his 82nd PGA Tour victory. He also finished fourth at the Hero World Challenge and went 3-0 at the Presidents Cup.

Everything seemed fine in January at the Farmers Insurance Open, where he tied for ninth. And at the Genesis, a tournament Woods hosts, he opened with 31 over his first nine holes and shot 69 but there were warning signs when he did not practice on Monday or Tuesday on site and then decided not to commit to the Mexico event.

“I feel stiff, but I have weeks like that, especially in the cold mornings like it was the other day,” Woods said following the third round of the Genesis three weeks ago. “Don’t quite move as well and that’s just kind of how it’s going to go.”

Woods downplayed it at the time, and even suggested his issues were worse at the Presidents Cup in Australia, where he elected to sit out both Saturday sessions because he did not want to push it. He came back to win his Sunday singles match.

Now the speculation will continue. Does Woods enter the Valspar Championship, where he tied for second two years ago? Does he wait another week and go to the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, where he tied for fifth last year? Does he play both? Neither?

“That’s the fun part of trying to figure this whole comeback — how much do I play, when do I play, do I listen to the body or do I fight through it? There are some things I can push and some things I can’t,” he said at the Genesis. “And so I had a theory this year that I may play about the same amount. What did I play, 12 times last year, and so that’s kind of my number for the year.

“I won’t play a lot more than that just because of the physical toll and I want to stay out here for just a little bit longer.”

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Giannis on Harden dig: My game ‘not just power’

MILWAUKEE — On the heels of James Harden’s interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols — in which the Houston Rockets star appeared to take aim at Giannis Antetokounmpo’s skill set — the reigning league MVP responded with a statement performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ 47-point win was their largest of the season, 133-86, with Antetokounmpo going off for 32 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in just over 27 minutes.

He pushed his total to nine games of posting 30 or more points in under 30 minutes in a single season, the most in the shot clock era since 1954-55.

“My game is not just power for sure,” Antetokounmpo said following the victory. “I came in when I was 18, I was 180 pounds, so to power through big guys was kind of tough.

“But obviously, it’s going to be times where you’ve got to power through guys. Like one of the best players LeBron, Michael Jordan, Kobe and all those guys… Shaq, all those guys, they were extremely physical with their play. They made their presence felt in the paint, but obviously I try to work on my game, midrange shots, 3s, being able to screen and roll faster and make the right pass.

“It’s hard to drive full speed and try to make the right pass to the corner. I try to get my passes more accurate and it’s a lot of things I’m still adding, and hopefully when I add all those things in my game, I’m a more complete player and I’m better and can help my team win and the game is easier.”

In response to Nichols mentioning Antetokounmpo’s joke about taking Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker over Harden during the NBA All-Star draft process because he wanted “somebody who’s gonna pass the ball,” the former MVP didn’t see the humor behind it.

“I wish I could be 7-feet, run and just dunk. That takes no skill at all,” Harden told Nichols during the interview, which aired Friday. “I gotta actually learn how to play basketball and how to have skill. I’ll take that any day.”

Ahead of the Thunder-Bucks tip-off, though, Antetokounmpo cleared the air to ESPN that “there’s not back-and-forth” with Harden and insisted that he “never tried to take shots at somebody.”

Antetokounmpo says he understood that it may have come out that way, but would rather put his energy into basketball and his family. The Bucks were able to win without All-Star Khris Middleton (neck soreness) to improve to a league-best 51-8 on the season.

Milwaukee also extended its win streak to five straight, while making 21 3-pointers in front of Bucks legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which tied their second most in a game in franchise history.

Antetokounmpo became the second player in NBA history to average 25 points and 15 boards for a month without losing a single game he played, joining Abdul-Jabbar in March 1973.

Antetokounmpo’s plus-minus of +44 was also not only a career best, but also the highest by any player to log fewer than 30 minutes and take 20 shot attempts in a game over the past 15 seasons, per ESPN Stats & Information research.

Nobody can convince those around him that skill isn’t a part of his repertoire.

“I don’t know who is criticizing him. He’s a winner,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “The kid brings it in every way, shape and form. He brings it in practice and in the locker room. He’s a great leader. He’s a great player. He does everything. I don’t know how to describe his game.”

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