Zion Williamson is a "Shaquille O'Neal-type force" with skills like a point guard, according to Rick Carlisle, who saw his Dallas Mavericks struggle to contain the New Orleans Pelicans forward.

Having finished with a career-high 39 points in a loss to the Denver Nuggets in his previous outing, Williamson had 38 to help the Pelicans get back to winning ways on Saturday.

The 20-year-old contributed 10 points in a pivotal 18-8 run in the closing stages as he took over proceedings, helping New Orleans eventually prevail 112-103 as they claimed a third win in four outings.

Mavs coach Carlisle admitted his team found Williamson – who landed 12 free throws from 18 attempts, both season-high numbers – too much to handle with the game on the line.

"He's an unusual force and obviously a great player," Carlisle said.

"We'll have to figure something a little better out next time, but he's doing this to everybody. We did have some very good possessions guarding him, but he was a beast.

"It presents huge challenges for the defense and for officials. He is just creating collisions out there. This is a Shaquille O'Neal-type force of nature with a point guard skill set."

Williamson is averaging 26.3 points per game in his second season in the league, shooting 62.8 per cent from the field.

The first overall pick in the 2019 draft has had five games in this campaign with at least 15 field goals attempts and an 80 per cent success rate, the most by any NBA player since Charles Barkley had five in 1988-89 when playing for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Only two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (412) and Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (389) have taken more free throws than Williamson (364) so far this term, while he is also averaging seven rebounds per game.

His improvement as a playmaker is also impressive. Having averaged 2.1 assists in a rookie season that was limited to just 24 games, he is up at 3.5 through 43 outings in 2020-21, including 16 across in the last three for a Pelicans team fighting hard to make the playoffs.

However, while flattered by links to the legendary O'Neal, as well as other NBA greats, Williamson wants to leave his own legacy.

"I am who I am. I'm Zion. I'm trying to be the first and only Zion, that's all there is to it," he said after dazzling against Dallas.

The Pelicans are now 20-25 for the season to sit 12th in the Western Conference, with 14 of their victories coming in home games.

Francis Ngannou set his sights on Jon Jones after sealing a devastating knockout win in his rematch with Stipe Miocic to claim the heavyweight title at UFC 260.

Ngannou became the undisputed champion as he gained revenge after being outclassed by Miocic three years ago at UFC 220, the Cameroonian landing a brutal and decisive blow with a left hook in the second round.

And now the 34-year-old wants a shot at Jones, with the legendary American poised to step up to the heavyweight division later this year.

Ngannou lauded Jones as the GOAT of MMA, but declared he was ready for the challenge.

"In my opinion, Jon Jones is the greatest of all time in mixed martial arts. Him moving up is going to be a good thing," he said after his stunning victory in Las Vegas.

"He's a challenge I will take, and it will be a very good thing on the resume. But this time he is the challenger. I am the champ. He's coming up, looking for me.

"So I'm ready any time soon. Even summer, I will be here, ready to fight in July or August. Whenever they are ready, I'm ready.

"He said something, 'Show me the money'. Show the money and we'll go, baby. I'm here."

Miocic – who was coming off a unanimous decision win over Daniel Cormier at UFC 252 last August – was left stunned by an overpowering display from Ngannou, who got the job done 52 seconds into round two.

Doc Rivers has backed his old team the Los Angeles Clippers to battle it out with the LA Lakers to take the honours in the Western Conference.

The Clippers spoiled Rivers' return as they downed his Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers 122-112 on Saturday.

It was Rivers' first meeting with the Clippers since he was fired in the offseason, having let slip a 3-1 series lead in the second round of the playoffs against the Denver Nuggets.

But it was not a warm welcome on the court, where the 76ers had their four-game winning run brought to a grinding halt.

Kawhi Leonard put up 19 of his 28 points in a dazzling first half, with Paul George contributing 24.

It left Rivers in no doubt as to who the leading contenders are in the West, with the Clippers and the Lakers getting the nod ahead of the Utah Jazz – who currently lead the way in the standings – the Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers.

"I thought Denver had a great trade deadline – they did great moves," Rivers said. "Utah is playing unbelievable basketball, so they are going to be right there. Portland, I thought improved their team as well.

"But I still think it's the Lakers and the Clippers."

With Ty Lue now at the helm, Rivers acknowledged there are many differences to the team he coached, but pointed out that the Clippers had a solid platform to build on following his departure.

"They're a different team," Rivers said. "They don't have a lot of the same guys, [but] they run a lot of the same stuff that I run.

"Going through [their plays at] shootaround today, I thought we were going through our shootaround at times. But I wouldn't have changed much offensively, either. I mean, they were pretty darn good last year.

"The difference is they've had a chance to practice together, you know? And you can see that. I think they've given the ball to PG [George] more, which I think has helped him. So they've made some good changes.

"The biggest change I see also is defensively. I think they are a better defensive team. It's funny, the numbers don't exactly say that, but when I watch them, I think they're going to be a better defensive team, one of the better defensive teams when the playoffs start."

Terance Mann had a season-high 23 points for the Clippers on 10-of-12 shooting from the field, while he made both of his three-point attempts.

The 76ers had a six-game road winning run ended, despite a game-high 29 points from Tobias Harris.

The Los Angeles Clippers spoiled Doc Rivers' return as they topped the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers 122-112 in the NBA.

Rivers reunited with the Clippers for the first time since being fired and joining the 76ers in the offseason, having led the Los Angeles franchise to six playoff appearances.

But Rivers did not have much to celebrate after the 76ers had their four-game winning streak snapped on Saturday.

Kawhi Leonard posted 28 points – 19 in the first half – and Clippers team-mate Paul George added 24 of his own in Los Angeles.

Terance Mann had a season-high 23 points for the Clippers on 10-of-12 shooting from the field, while he made both of his three-point attempts.

The 76ers had a six-game road winning run ended, despite a game-high 29 points from Tobias Harris.

 

Mitchell sparks Jazz

Donovan Mitchell put up 35 points as the NBA-leading Utah Jazz defeated the Memphis Grizzlies 126-110. Mitchell was efficient in Utah, where he was 12-of-17 shooting from the field, to go with his five three-pointers from seven attempts in 28 minutes. All-Star team-mate Rudy Gobert (16 points and 14 rebounds) contributed a double-double.

Gregg Popovich became the third coach in NBA history to reach 1,300 regular-season wins following the San Antonio Spurs' 120-104 victory against the Chicago Bulls. Only Don Nelson (1,335) and Lenny Wilkens (1,332) have had 1,300 wins or more. All-Star Nikola Vucevic had 21 points and nine rebounds in his debut for the Bulls after being traded by the lowly Orlando Magic.

Zion Williamson's 38 points led the New Orleans Pelicans past the Dallas Mavericks 112-103. Tim Hardaway Jr. had 30 points off the bench for the beaten Mavericks.

Russell Westbrook's triple-double of 19 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists fuelled a 106-92 win for the Washington Wizards against the Detroit Pistons.

The Milwaukee Bucks were upstaged 102-96 by the New York Knicks despite double-doubles from two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo (23 points and 10 rebounds), Jordan Nwora (21 points and 10 rebounds) and Brook Lopez (12 points and 10 rebounds).

 

Awful Richardson

The Mavericks went down to the Pelicans and Josh Richardson struggled. The shooting guard finished one-of-11 from the field. Richardson missed all four of his attempts from beyond the arc for a measly four points in 34 minutes.

Mike Scott – in the starting five for the 76ers – finished with just three points in Los Angeles. He was one-of-six from the field, making just one three-pointer in 29 minutes.

 

Barnes calls game!

With the Sacramento Kings trailing 98-97, Harrison Barnes nailed a buzzer-beating three after catching a full-court pass to sink the Cleveland Cavaliers. De'Aaron Fox's 36 points set the tone for the Kings, who edged the Cavaliers 100-98.

 

Saturday's results

Washington Wizards 106-92 Detroit Pistons
New York Knicks 102-96 Milwaukee Bucks
Houston Rockets 129-107 Minnesota Timberwolves
San Antonio Spurs 120-104 Chicago Bulls
New Orleans Pelicans 112-103 Dallas Mavericks
Boston Celtics 111-94 Oklahoma City Thunder
Utah Jazz 126-110 Memphis Grizzlies
Los Angeles Clippers 122-112 Philadelphia 76ers
Sacramento Kings 100-98 Cleveland Cavaliers

 

Suns at Hornets

The high-flying Phoenix Suns (30-14) – second in the west – will visit the in-form Charlotte Hornets (23-21) on Sunday. Charlotte have won three straight games to sit fourth in the Eastern Conference.

Francis Ngannou annihilated Stipe Miocic with a brutal second-round knockout in their blockbuster rematch to become the UFC heavyweight champion.

Ngannou was outclassed by Miocic three years ago, the Cameron fighter unable to take the title away from his opponent at UFC 220 in 2018.

But Ngannou (16-3) exacted revenge on Saturday thanks to his brutal KO of the titleholder at UFC 260 in Las Vegas, where a new champion was crowned.

Ngannou earned another title shot following knockout wins against Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos and Jairzinho Rozenstruik.

The 34-year-old dethroned Miocic (20-4) inside the UFC Apex, where he had the American fighter in trouble early in the second round after dropping the champion with a two-punch combination.

Miocic – who was coming off a unanimous decision win over Daniel Cormier at UFC 242 last August – was left stunned after being swarmed with punches on the chin and Ngannou followed with a hammer fist on the ground as the referee waved off the fight.

Afterwards, Ngannou talked up a showdown with former champion Jon Jones.

"It's a challenge that I'll take and a very good fight on my resume," Ngannou said post-fight.

"He's the challenger, I am the champion so he's looking for me. I'm ready to fight in July and August. Let's do it." 

In the co-main event, Vicente Luque stunned former welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, who was forced into submission in the opening round.

It condemned Woodley to a fourth consecutive defeat as Luque earned the biggest win of his career.

"I want to take this time also to call out Nate Diaz," Luque said. "I called him out in the past and he didn't respond. My style, it matches perfect. I'm going to go forward. I think Nate is a perfect fight."

Stefanos Tsitsipas continued his strong run of form en route to the Miami Open third round, while Aslan Karatsev's maintained his fairytale run in 2021.

Greek star Tsitsipas flexed his muscles in a straight-sets win over Damir Dzumhur on Saturday.

Australian Open semi-finalist and Dubai Tennis Championships winner Karatsev enjoyed a victorious Miami debut.

Andrey Rublev, Diego Schwartzman, Denis Shapovalov, Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic also progressed at the ATP 1000 tournament.

 

TSITSIPAS STAYS HOT

World number five Tsitsipas eased past Dzumhur 6-1 6-4 in his first appearance since losing in last week's Mexican Open final.

Tsitsipas (15-4) became the third player to reach 15 wins this season, the second seed following in the footsteps of Russian duo Rublev (17-3) and Daniil Medvedev (15-2).

"It was a great match, especially against a guy that I probably don't have a good record playing against in the past," said Tsitsipas. "I started the match very strong, breaking him twice and taking a big lead in the score, and I think the things worked out by themselves after that."

Tsitsipas will face Kei Nishikori after the Japanese outlasted Aljaz Bedene 7-6 (8-6) 5-7 6-4.

 

NO STOPPING KARATSEV

Karatsev's Miami Open debut ended in a 6-4 6-3 win for the 17th-seeded Russian over Mikhail Kukushkin.

Already in the ATP's top 100 and set to keep climbing, Karatsev broke serve four times en route to the next round, where Sebastian Korda awaits after upstaging 10th seed Fabio Fognini 1-6 6-4 6-2.

"Of course it gives me confidence to win my first title, but you arrive here and it’s a different surface and new tournament," said Karatsev, who ended last season ranked 112th before bursting into the top 30 behind his semi-final run at Melbourne Park. "So you try [to think of it] as a new tournament and new place, but of course it gives me a lot of confidence."

Karatsev owns a 13-2 record this year, with his only two losses coming against world number one Novak Djokovic and US Open champion Dominic Thiem.

 

RUBLEV ROLLS ON

Fourth seed Rublev has proven to be remarkably consistent, highlighted by his crushing 6-1 6-2 rain-interrupted victory against Tennys Sandgren.

Having equalled his previous best run in Miami, Rublev will play 29th seed Marton Fucsovics who took down Thanasi Kokkinakis 7-6 (7-3) 6-7 (4-7) 6-4.

Rublev has won a Tour-leading 17 matches this year.

Elsewhere, fifth seed Schwartzman was a 6-3 6-3 winner against Yasutaka Uchiyama, Shapovalov – the sixth seed – trumped Ilya Ivashka 6-7 (5-7) 6-4 6-4 in a marathon, 12th seed Raonic accounted for Jordan Thompson 6-2 6-1, former US Open winner Cilic surprised 13th seed Christian Garin 3-6 7-5 7-6 (7-5), while 15th seed Alex de Minaur was eliminated.

World number one Ash Barty moved through to the last 16 of the Miami Open, where Simona Halep's campaign came to a premature end.

Defending champion and top seed Barty was too good for Jelena Ostapenko in Saturday's showdown between the former French Open winners.

Two-time grand slam winner Victoria Azarenka also moved through to the fourth round of the WTA Premier tournament.

Halep, however, succumbed to a shoulder injury in Miami.

 

CLASH OF PAST AND PRESENT NUMBER ONES

Barty and former world number one Azarenka will go head-to-head for a place in the quarter-finals.

Australian star Barty accounted for Ostapenko 6-3 6-2 as she extended her winning streak at the Miami Open to eight matches.

Barty, who tallied nine winners to 14 unforced errors, rallied from 2-0 down in the second set by reeling off six successive games to advance.

"Today felt like I was a lot sharper and switched on and ready to go from the very first point," Barty said afterwards.

Three-time Miami champion Azarenka trumped Angelique Kerber 7-5 6-2 in the third round.

Azarenka – the 14th seed – fought back from a 4-1 deficit in the opening set to get the better of the three-time major winner.

"She's a very talented player. I always have been a huge fan of her game and the way she plays, the way she handles herself. She has a lot of variety," Azarenka said on facing Barty. "She has pretty much every single shot there is. [It's] going to be a great match."

 

INJURED HALEP PULLS OUT

Two-time grand slam champion Halep withdrew due to a shoulder injury as Anastasija Sevastova benefited from a walkover.

"I'm very sorry to I have to pull out of the singles and doubles at the Miami Open, but my injury doesn't let me play here as expected," said Halep.

"I'm sad that I can't continue, I wanted to come here to give my best and play many matches but unfortunately I can't. 

"Hopefully next year I will come back healthy and better."

Next up for Sevastova is wildcard Ana Konjuh, who stunned 15th seed and reigning French Open champion Iga Swiatek 6-4 2-6 6-2.

 

SVITOLINA AND SABALENKA ROLL ON

Ukrainian fifth seed Elina Svitolina booked her spot in the round of 16 after overcoming fellow seed Ekaterina Alexandrova 7-6 (7-1) 6-4.

Two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova stands in the way of a quarter-final berth – the ninth seed was too good for 17th seed Johanna Konta 6-1 6-2.

Seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka, meanwhile, prevailed 7-6 (7-4) 6-4 against Veronika Kudermetova.

Belinda Bencic – the 11th seed – was sent packing 4-6 6-4 6-4 by Marketa Vondrousova, who will take on Sabalenka.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have shut down five-time All-Star Al Horford for the remainder of the season as the NBA franchise prioritise youth development.

Horford arrived from the Philadelphia 76ers at the start of the season and the veteran has had a significant impact on the rebuilding Thunder.

But the 34-year-old will not feature for the Thunder again in 2020-21, though he plans to remain with his team-mates and train in Oklahoma City ahead of an expected trade.

"We've talked with Al from the time he became a member of the Thunder this offseason about the many ways in which he would be able to help us as we entered the early stages of the necessary transition of our team," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in a statement on Saturday.

"From day one Al has been a consummate professional and has had a tremendous influence on the team on and off the floor with his work ethic and total commitment to his team-mates.

"Our conversations have been open and ongoing about how to maximise this season for him personally as well as the development of our team.

"Al has been nothing short of spectacular and will remain a part of the team as we build on an approach and mentality that we have taken for some time."

Horford has been averaging 14.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game for the Thunder this season.

Throughout his career, Horford is averaging 13.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the NBA.

Horford, who has two years and $53million on his contract, added: "When I arrived, I understood the direction of the team, we had a great individual plan in place for me, and I feel like as a result I've played really good basketball for the Thunder.

"At the same time, I know what it's like to be a young, aspiring player, and at this point in the season I understand how important playing meaningful minutes is for their careers and their development.

"I also understand how important it is for the organisation to give them that opportunity. I'm looking forward to supporting the guys who supported me, watching them continue to play the right way and play together as we have throughout the season, while still being around the team and continuing my training."

Billy Horschel, Matt Kuchar, Scottie Scheffler and Victor Perez are all vying for a spot in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play final after a day of upsets in Austin.

Stars Jon Rahm, Tommy Fleetwood and Sergio Garcia surprisingly crashed out in the quarter-finals as the underdogs ruled on Saturday.

The unpredictable tournament continued on the weekend after world number one Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed were unable to advance beyond the group stage.

Spanish third seed Rahm topped Erik van Rooyen 3 and 2 in the last 16 before being upstaged by Scheffler 3 and 1 in the quarter-finals at the Austin Country Club.

"I felt like I played some really good golf," said Scheffler, who will meet Kuchar in an all-American clash for a spot in Sunday's decider. "I think I kept things bogey-free and I got some early leads and made sure that I kept the pressure on those guys and made them feel like they had to do something special to beat me, which they weren't able to do."

Fleetwood – the 21st seed – succumbed to Horschel after 19 holes, while former Masters champion Garcia was beaten by 31st seed Victor Perez 4 and 3.

American golfer Horschel and France's Perez will do battle in the semis.

Englishman Fleetwood was sent packing after hitting a hole-in-one during his last-16 victory – a drive out of bounds at the 12th seeding him come unstuck in the quarters.

It was a big day for 2013 champion Kuchar, who eliminated former world number one Jordan Spieth 1up before defeating Brian Harman 2 and 1.

Kuchar – the 52nd seed – was runner-up in 2019, with last year's event cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"Certainly golf's a funny game and I think there are times as a professional where you can feel so far away, you think, golly, I don't have it," Kuchar said.

"I'm racking my brain trying to find it, but then you plug in the right ingredient, the right key, and then all of a sudden it snaps back, and thankfully it's been working and I'm seeing progression. It's just finally now it's clicked and it's a lot more fun this way, I assure you."

LaMarcus Aldridge has agreed to join the star-studded Brooklyn Nets for the rest of the NBA season, according to his agent.

Aldridge – a seven-time All-Star – agreed to a contract buyout with the San Antonio Spurs earlier this month.

Now, the 35-year-old star will join forces with James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Blake Griffin in Brooklyn as the Nets eye their first NBA championship.

Aldridge's agent Jeff Schwartz confirmed the deal to ESPN on Saturday.

Averaging 19.4 points and 8.3 rebounds in his 15 NBA seasons, including nine with the Portland Trail Blazers, Aldridge has not played since March 1.

Aldridge is averaging 13.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in 2020-21.

Steve Nash's Nets (31-15) are second in the Eastern Conference, one-and-a-half games behind the Philadelphia 76ers (32-13).

Dillian Whyte produced one of the performances of his career to gain revenge on Alexander Povetkin and put himself firmly back into the world heavyweight title picture with a clinical fourth-round knockout in Gibraltar.

The Briton's lengthy quest to earn a title shot hit the buffers after Povetkin won their first bout in Brentwood last August by catching Whyte with a bruising uppercut, despite having been put down twice prior to that fifth-round shock.

In a case of deja vu, Whyte - who now improves to 28-2-0 (19 KOs) by triumphing in the 'Rumble on the Rock' - sent Povetkin to the floor with a crushing hook in round four, and though the Russian tried to stumble back to his feet the referee stopped the contest with the towel thrown in by his camp.

For Whyte, it was an emphatic statement and the end of a frustrating wait after this rematch was twice scuppered with Povetkin having suffered the long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection.

A dominant performance, in which the jab landed with regularity, sees Whyte become the WBC's 'interim' heavyweight champion but his sights could now turn to facing former WBC champion Deontay Wilder, while in the long term whoever triumphs in the mouthwatering unification bout between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua will be on his radar.

"I was ready straight away. He's a tough guy, I think I could have finished him early. I'm ready to run it back again that's how I feel," Whyte, who went through a drastic body transformation and had his sugar intake over Christmas monitored by a nutritionist, told Sky Sports.

"If he wants a rematch, they offer me the right money I'll go again. I'm annoyed, the first time I shouldn't have lost. I made a mistake and paid for it. 

"From the first round I was on to him, then I was like let me relax, don't blow up. I was tempted to go hell for leather the first round, then I thought it might not be the best thing to do. 

"He's only lost to me, Joshua and [Wladimir] Klitschko. Yeah, I still believe I can be world champion. This camp was a bit annoying because of the rescheduling, I was in much better shape than this. I had to stop-start, change up nutrition."

Povetkin - whose record now reads 36-3-1 (25 KOs) - was in trouble as early as round one, with Whyte staggering his opponent with a clubbing body shot and landing flush with a hook that left the Russian on wobbly legs.

To his credit, Povetkin steadied himself and landed with a hook of his own in the second but Whyte continued to control proceedings behind the jab and landing rights from range.

Whyte went to the floor in round three but only after losing his footing and soon clubbed Povetkin with another huge right.

That was the precursor to a barnstorming finish. Povetkin was already in trouble from another mammoth blow and Whyte finished the job with one more huge hook, before graciously racing over to the opposite corner with a stool to help the recovery of his beaten opponent.

Lewis Hamilton claims it is "no secret" the new Formula One regulations have been introduced to slow Mercedes, but he was encouraged by their opening qualifying session of the season.

Changes to aerodynamic regulations for 2021 have had a great impact on the reigning champions' low-rake chassis, the Silver Arrows say.

Mercedes have won the past seven constructors' championships, yet Red Bull led the way in pre-season testing.

The fastest lap belonged to Max Verstappen and the same man took pole on Saturday at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

But Hamilton was only 0.388 seconds back in second and that performance spells good news for the Briton, with all 16 Bahrain winners coming from the first two rows of the grid but only seven of them qualifying on pole.

Meanwhile, Verstappen has retired three times at this event and four times at the Sakhir track.

Hamilton remains very much in contention, despite feeling the rules have been designed to hurt his team.

"It's no secret. The changes, of course they've been done to peg us back," he said. "We've had the changes last year to our engine to do the same thing.

"That's okay. We love a challenge, we don't look down on these things. We just work hard to do the best that we can, and that's what we'll do."

But Hamilton was not amused by a request for him to analyse where Red Bull are now better, as Verstappen - having ended last year with a win - targets back-to-back triumphs for the first time in his career.

"Really? I don't want to tell you what our problem is," Hamilton said. "They're just faster."

With Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas qualifying third, the top three - Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas - are on course to become the first trio to appear on 15 podiums together.

Although Verstappen is still in the lead, this Mercedes challenge seemed improbable for Hamilton just days ago.

"I think this is a really good step forward for us coming this weekend," he said.

"We thought it was double the gap that you see today. That's down to some really fantastic work from the men and women back at the factory.

"Of course we want to be first, but we knew that it was going to be a challenge, we knew from day one on track really that Red Bull was going to be faster than us.

"We knew we had a bit of an uphill slope to climb. I'm just proud of everyone's efforts."

Elsewhere, two former champions had vastly contrasting fortunes after offseason moves.

Three-time Bahrain winner Fernando Alonso is back in F1 with Alpine Team, formerly Renault, where he won two world titles.

And his second debut was a success as he reached Q3 for the first time since Monaco 2018 and claimed ninth on the grid.

"It was good," said Alonso, who won this event on the previous two occasions it opened a season. "I think we have to be pleased with the qualifying.

"I was not confident in any of the sessions so far in the weekend - I was struggling a little bit to feel the rear of the car in windy conditions - and now in the qualifying everything was calmer.

"The night situation I think helped us with the cooler temperatures, so I was able to attack and feel the car a little bit better and it was fun."

On the other hand, Sebastian Vettel was eliminated in Q1 as his second run was hampered by yellow flags prompted by Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin's spin.

No driver has more wins (four) or poles (three) in Bahrain than the former Ferrari man, but his Aston Martin bow did not go to plan.

Vettel will start from 18th and said: "If I panicked now, would it help? If I was really upset?

"For sure, I am upset and angry that it wasn't our fault in a way not to make it through, but we have to take it and do what we can, preparing tomorrow."

Matters could yet get worse for the German, who will appear before the stewards on Sunday for failing to respect the flags, potentially meaning a five-place penalty.

Francesco Bagnaia targeted "a really great result" at the Qatar Grand Prix after setting a stunning lap record on his factory Ducati debut.

Third-year MotoGP rider Bagnaia had finished 15th and 16th in his two seasons with Pramac Racing but has quickly focused on loftier ambitions following his bow with the factory team.

Ducati - winners of the previous two Qatar GPs with the since-departed Andrea Dovizioso - had been fast all week at the season opener, with Jack Miller setting the practice pace in his 100th grand prix with a best time of one minute and 53.387 seconds ahead of second-placed team-mate Bagnaia.

But Bagnaia later suggested he had believed he could run in less than 1:53 in qualifying and so it proved, a magnificent 1:52.772 setting a two-wheel lap record at the Losail International Circuit.

That was enough for a healthy 0.266-second gap to Fabio Quartararo, while Bagnaia gave veteran Valentino Rossi - a four-time Qatar winner - a tow to take him to the front of the second row.

Rossi has 10 podiums at Losail and his next in MotoGP will make him the first to 200.

Even from his commanding position, Bagnaia could be forgiven for being pessimistic after his year-high six abandonments in 2020 - including five in the final eight races - but he was full of positivity following an outstanding display.

"I'm very happy," he said. "Already yesterday I was thinking it was possible today to arrive at (1:)52.

"In the second attempt, when I started pushing, I thought it was possible. After the third sector, I was very close to this lap time.

"I'm very happy; my first pole position in my first race with this team. I would like to make everything possible to finish the race tomorrow in the best way possible. I think we can make a really great result."

Miller had to settle for fifth, next to Rossi, as he pursues a third straight podium for the first time in his career following two to end 2020.

Quartararo also had reason to be disappointed with his day as he mistimed his second run and the chequered flag denied him the opportunity to challenge Bagnaia.

Another debutant at a factory team, Yamaha's Quartararo won the first two races of the season last year but has had only one podium in 12 outings since.

The 21-year-old, who has colleague Maverick Vinales - the 2017 Qatar winner - behind him in third, said: "It's a shame I couldn't do the second lap on my second run. I had the chequered flag for a second.

"But I'm quite happy. I think we did a great lap. We tried something in FP4 that was bad, honestly - I didn't feel great on the bike. But I feel that we have great potential for tomorrow.

"We will go with that bike for the race because it's the one that I feel good [on]. I think we made too much changes today, but I'm feeling happy.

"I think we did a great, great job in the qualifying. Now we're just missing the race. I can't wait."

Neither the Ducatis nor the Yamahas should have to worry this weekend about defending champion Joan Mir, who failed to capitalise on the absence of Repsol Honda great Marc Marquez.

Mir was forced to contend in Q1 and will start from 10th, having finished eighth in his only previous Losail entry in 2018.


Provisional classification

1. Francesco Bagnaia (Ducati) 1:52.772
2. Fabio Quartararo (Monster Yamaha) +0.266s
3. Maverick Vinales (Monster Yamaha) +0.316s
4. Valentino Rossi (Petronas Yamaha) +0.342s
5. Jack Miller (Ducati) +0.443s
6. Johann Zarco (Pramac Racing) +0.514s
7. Franco Morbidelli (Petronas Yamaha) +0.541s
8. Aleix Espargaro (Aprilia Racing Team) +0.543s
9. Alex Rins (Team Suzuki Ecstar) +0.718s
10. Joan Mir (Team Suzuki Ecstar) +0.910s
11. Takaaki Nakagami (LCR Honda) +0.949s
12. Pol Espargaro (Repsol Honda) +1.158s

Lewis Hamilton felt he had got all he could out of his Mercedes as Max Verstappen stormed to an impressive pole position for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Red Bull driver Verstappen finished 0.388 seconds clear of Mercedes rival and defending world champion Hamilton in qualifying on Saturday.

Valtteri Bottas was 0.589s back in third with Charles Leclerc taking an impressive fourth for Ferrari.

Verstappen had previously topped every practice session in Sakhir, a circuit where he is due a change of luck having retired there four times – more than at any other track in his Formula One career.

His dominant start to the campaign has fans dreaming of a competitive 2021 season after Hamilton was in a class of his own in winning a seventh world title last year.

"We have already had a great week of testing," Verstappen said.

"There are no guarantees but it's been great so far coming back for the race week. The car has been working really well - really enjoyable to drive.

"With the wind conditions changing, it's not easy to change the set-up of the car for every session but it all worked out perfectly in qualifying and I'm really happy with pole position.

"My first lap in Q3 wasn't amazing so I knew there was more in it – you never know how much - but finally the balance was there and you can push a little bit more. 

"You have to be careful not to overheat the rear tyres but where it mattered we could perform. The car has been steady on the short and long runs - we have a good car."

Hamilton felt grid spots of second and third were solid accomplishments for Mercedes after their struggles in pre-season testing.

The Briton said: "Amazing [to have competition]. Congratulations to Max. He did such a great job, so fast on that last lap.

"I absolutely gave it everything I had but unfortunately it was not good enough. There is always more but it was the best I could do that is for sure and I got absolutely everything I could from the car.

"We did a really good job from testing to come here - everyone in the factory has done an amazing job. 

"To be that close, closer to the Red Bulls [is good] considering in testing we thought we would be further behind."

There was some disappointment for Red Bull when Sergio Perez was unable to reach Q3 as he tried to reach the shoot-out on medium tyres. He will start 11th.

It means Hamilton and Bottas will, as they did for much of last season when Alex Albon struggled, have a strategic numerical advantage at the front as they battle Verstappen.

Bottas said: "Anything is possible and we can only aim for Sunday. We have two cars in the mix at the front with Max, so we'll see.

"The practice this morning wasn't easy, I had a couple of issues with balance.

"It was a bit better this evening. We used two sets of soft tyres in Q2 so in Q3, I only had one set of tyres, so it wasn't easy to compete with Max and Lewis."

Verstappen was just 0.023s ahead of Hamilton after the first runs of Q3, and then had to respond when his rival went fastest with his second attempt.

The Dutchman produced a brilliant answer, though, comfortably taking pole as he looks to win two straight races for the first time in his F1 career, having triumphed in the last race of 2020.

Pierre Gasly was fifth ahead of Daniel Ricciardo for his new team McLaren. Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, the returning Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll rounded out the top 10.

Sebastian Vettel had a frustrating first competitive outing for Aston Martin, as he and Esteban Ocon were eliminated in Q1, not helped by yellow flags towards the end of the session.

Ocon was 16th with Vettel in 18th, just one place ahead of Mick Schumacher on his F1 debut as the two Haas cars finished on the back row.

Hamilton has won the last two editions of the Bahrain Grand Prix, but no driver has ever recorded three straight victories at the event.

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1:28.997
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +0.388s
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +0.589s
4. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.681s
5. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +0.812s
6. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +0.930s
7. Lando Norris (McLaren) +0.977s
8. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +1.218s
9. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1.252s
10. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +1.604s

It was not sealed in the fashion they would have hoped for, but Wales could belatedly celebrate Six Nations glory on Friday.

Wayne Pivac's side had missed the chance to claim a Grand Slam triumph last week in a heartbreaking last-gasp defeat to France.

But with France needing a bonus-point win by a 21-point margin in Friday's rearranged clash with Scotland - delayed due to an earlier COVID-19 outbreak - to deny Wales again, Les Bleus' loss in Paris handed them the title.

"It's a real emotional rollercoaster, the last seven days really," Wales head coach Pivac said on Saturday.

He added: "It was just different and that's what we've come to expect from this pandemic really.

"It was evident that we had to go and do something different and that was to watch us win a championship from our living room."

That was far from the only first in a tournament with its fair share of twists and turns, though, as Opta data shows.
 

MORE TRIES, MORE DRAMA

There were six tries in Friday's frantic affair at the Stade de France and that contributed to a new Six Nations record.

A total of 86 tries were scored across the 15 matches, the most in a single edition of the tournament in its history.

And Scotland's dramatic 27-23 success, sealed with an 80th-minute Duhan van der Merwe score, was a fitting end to the competition.

Eight of the 15 games were decided by margins of five points or fewer, another new benchmark.

"There were some great games," Pivac said. "It was just a shame we didn't have crowds. You can imagine how much of an atmosphere would have been generated.

"It was a good advertisement for the game and a lot of nations are heading in the right direction. It's exciting."

Van der Merwe beat two defenders in the decisive fixture and in doing so set a new tournament high of 31, surpassing Brian O'Driscoll's 30 defenders beaten in 2000.

The wing's brace also saw him become the first Scotland player to finish a Six Nations campaign as the outright leading try scorer (five).

France needed to score at least one more try in order to have a chance of snatching the championship, but they still matched their best haul of 18 from 2006.

Not all the records were quite so impressive.

Italy conceded 239 points, 34 tries and had a points difference of -184, the worst such tallies for any team in an edition of the Six Nations.
 

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

Wales' title was their sixth since Italy were introduced to the tournament to form the Six Nations in 2000.

Four of their previous five had been Grand Slam successes, a record over this period they could not extend thanks to France's epic win last week.

But Wales are now only one Six Nations crown behind England's seven.

"It gives us a lot of confidence to feel like we're on the right track," the title-winning coach said. "We can't get ahead of ourselves."

This was not a tournament England will reflect on fondly, even as captain Owen Farrell became only the third man - after Ronan O'Gara and Jonny Wilkinson - to reach 500 points in the Five/Six Nations.

Eddie Jones' outfit came in as defending champions but slumped to their joint-worst Six Nations finish, coming fifth as they had in 2018.

England also lost against Ireland, Wales and Scotland in the same Five/Six Nations campaign for the first time since 1976.

At the bottom of the table, though, there was no change.

Italy have picked up the Wooden Spoon in each of the past six years, this after finishing bottom of the championship just once in the prior four seasons.

Simona Halep has withdrawn from the Miami Open due to a shoulder injury.

Halep beat Caroline Garcia in the second round in Florida on Thursday, but an issue with the world number three's right shoulder prevented her from facing Anastasija Sevastova.

The two-time grand slam champion said: "I'm very sorry to I have to pull out of the singles and doubles at the Miami Open, but my injury doesn't let me play here as expected.

"I'm sad that I can't continue, I wanted to come here to give my best and play many matches but unfortunately I can't. 

"Hopefully next year I will come back healthy and better."

Sevastova will face either French Open champion Iga Swiatek or Ana Konjuh in the round of 16.

The Reds thrashed Waratahs 46-14 to maintain their perfect start to the Super Rugby AU season and return to the top of the standings.

Substitute Alex Mafi's second-half hat-trick helped seal an emphatic victory for the leaders, who had not beaten the Waratahs in Sydney in eight years.

Will Harrison kicked three penalties for the hosts in the first half, but the Reds responded through tries from Tate McDermott, Lukhan Salakaia-Loto and Filipo Daugunu.

Taniela Tupou crossed over early in the second half to extend the Reds' lead and, while Will Harris touched down to give Waratahs a temporary reprieve, their opponents soon ran away with the game.

Mafi, brought on at the interval, scored the first of his three tries with a little over an hour played and added two more before full-time, either side of Hugh Sinclair and Zane Nonggorr being sin-binned for separate offences.

The Super Rugby Aotearoa clash between Chiefs and Blues earlier on Saturday was a lot tighter, with Damian McKenzie snatching a famous 15-12 win for the hosts in the final minute.

Akira Ioane found a way through 24 minutes in for the only score of the first half of what turned out to be a thrilling contest in Hamilton.

But the Chiefs, who had gone 11 matches without a Super Rugby win before beating Hurricanes last weekend, hit back through McKenzie's penalty and a Samisoni Taukei'aho try, the hooker grounding the ball in the midst of a maul of players.

That lead lasted just a few minutes, however, as Tom Robinson charged clear and dotted down for the Blues' second try, which Otere Black was unable to add to from the conversion.

And that would prove a costly miss as, with less than a minute to go, McKenzie rounded off a fine counter-attack and brushed himself down to add the extras for a memorable victory that lifts Chiefs up to third, now within two points of their opponents.

Zach Wilson reflected on a "crazy" draft process after the San Francisco 49ers traded up to number three overall during his pro day.

The BYU quarterback was being put through his paces in front of representatives from NFL teams as news filtered through of the Niners' move.

Originally in possession of the number three pick were the Miami Dolphins, who sent it to San Francisco in exchange for number 12, a third-rounder and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023.

Shortly after, the Dolphins struck a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to go back up to number six. 

To do so, Miami parted with the number 12 pick they received from the Niners, a fourth-round pick and a 2022 first-rounder, while also receiving a fifth-round selection in return from the Eagles.

Wilson has been heavily connected to the New York Jets, who are scheduled to pick at number two.

That is a prospect he revealed would be a dream, with general manager Joe Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh among those watching him.

He also said he had been in discussions with the 49ers, whose GM John Lynch was in attendance at the pro day.

"It would obviously be a dream come true," Wilson said to ESPN when asked about the prospect of New York picking him at two.

"It was great to see those guys out here. Great staff. Love those guys. Joe Douglas is a great guy. It was good to see him out here. They've got a good thing going.

"I have spent some time with them on Zoom meetings, talking back and forth a little bit, but nothing more than any other team. 

"Coming up to the draft there are so many what ifs going in.

"But really I'm just so grateful to be here, grateful for the opportunity and humbled that I am even in this situation

"I'll be happy with whoever gives me the chance in the draft."

Asked about the 49ers' move, Wilson added: "I found out right after the throwing session, you know it is crazy. 

"That's what I was talking about, there are so many what ifs about what is going on, so we will see coming up in April. 

"I've had a couple of conversations with them as well, but we will see what happens coming up to April."

The 2021 NFL Draft will take place on April 29 in Cleveland.

Clemson Tigers QB Trevor Lawrence is expected to be picked at number one overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

As well as Lawrence and Wilson, there are likely to be three other QBs picked in a dramatic first round: Justin Fields, Trey Lance and Mac Jones.

James Harden says he feels like the MVP of the NBA following his latest dominant display in the Brooklyn Nets' 113-111 win over the Detroit Pistons on Friday.

Harden returned from neck soreness to score 44 points for the Nets, his largest haul since joining Brooklyn from the Houston Rockets in January.

He also contributed 14 rebounds and eight assists in a decisive performance.

"I feel like I am the MVP," Harden said. "I don't want to speak individually on myself. I'm just going to leave it at that.

"I just try to go out there every single night and bring my team-mates everything I can."

The 31-year-old guard, who averages the most minutes per game in 2020-21, tops the statistics for assists per game this season, with 11.2. He is also averaging 25.3 points and 7.9 rebounds.

Denver's Nikola Jokic, Philadelphia's Joel Embiid, Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lakers star LeBron James are among the favourites to win the MVP along with Harden.

Harden added: "Tonight, Detroit's game plan and schemes were to take away the lob pass and not let our bigs get lobs and shooters to get shots.

"That allowed me to get to the basket and shoot layups all night. Games are different and I just take what the defense gives me. The next game we might get more lobs than shots.

"Just play the game the right way and try to be efficient in doing it."

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