WNBA star Brittney Griner leaves the courtroom in Khimki, Russia, where she was sentenced to nine years in prison for smuggling cannabis oil into the country

Uncasville (United States) (AFP) - The head coach of Brittney Griner’s WNBA team said the nine-year sentence handed out to its star player by a Russian court on Thursday was devastating – even though it was no surprise.

“We knew this was coming, we’ve been prepared for it,” said Vanessa Nygaard, Phoenix Mercury’s head coach, noting the minuscule acquittal rates in Russian courts where Griner was convicted of smuggling drugs into the country.

“We know we weren’t hanging our hopes on the Russian justice system.

“But we were literally getting ready to come out for shoot around today when this was going on,” she said. “Players were watching it.”

She said it made it hard to concentrate on Thursday night’s WNBA game against the Connecticut Sun, in which the Mercury will be trying to bounce back from an 87-63 loss to the Sun on Tuesday.

“The emotions have escalated during the day,” Nygaard said. “We’re going to go out and play this game, but, like, how can we have our focus on this game? It’s such an emotional day for us.”

Not for the first time, Nygaard suggested that if Griner wasn’t a Black, gay woman she wouldn’t still be wrongfully detained in Russia.

“We know that Tom Brady wouldn’t be in Russia, so the comparison that way is tough to see,” Nygaard said, invoking superstar NFL quarterback Tom Brady.

But Nygaard praised the “tremendous” efforts of US President Joe Biden and his administration in seeking Griner’s release and that of other Americans deemed wrongfully detained in Russia.

“What I do know is our government has really put itself behind BG and all other Americans – we’re learning a lot more about international wrongly detained Americans than we ever have,” she said.

“I know there are many other families experiencing this feeling, too.”