And then there was one.
After another slow start (but not as slow as the previously played games in this tournament), the USA Basketball Women’s National Team (USABWNT) is headed to its third consecutive FIBA Women’s World Cup championship in the hopes of winning its third World Cup championship. The last team to score at least three consecutive World Cup championships was the former Soviet Union (1959, 1964, 1967, 1971, 1975), and USABWNT (and Gamecocks women’s basketball) head coach Dawn Staley is looking to add yet another historical moment to her vibranium résumé.
Once again, it was the younger generation that bailed the team’s chestnuts out of the fire and a veteran to drag them over the finish line. In this game against the Belgium national team, it was Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm, 8 points, 6 assists) and Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm, 20 points, 2 assists, 1 steal) who helped turn the tide after Belgium got off to a strong start and Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) who scored 26 points and 3 assists to set up a Sunday showdown with Australia’s Opals and the dominant Liz Cambage (Dallas Wings). Team USA started the game with a her-storical mark (10,000 scored World Cup points), so it was only fitting that it should end it with another in its 20th straight World Cup win and a potential Jeopardy question.
It wasn’t easy. With memories of their poor starting performance against Nigeria on Friday, Team USA came out with a greater sense of urgency, but so did Belgium, which was playing in its first World Cup. Though Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury, 16 points) made the game’s (and the team’s) first two baskets, Belgium came back with a barrage of three-pointers to take a 26-21 lead at the end of the first quarter. Belgium’s Emma Meesseman (Washington Mystics) scored 13 points in the first half alone.
Staley made her adjustments early and Taurasi put the team on her back as USA held a narrow one-point lead (40-39) at halftime. The combination of youthful energy, veteran savvy, and a deep bench allowed Team USA to start pulling away in the third quarter (where Taurasi scored 13 points of her own) and cruise to a decisive 93-77 win in a game with multiple lead changes and ties. Team USA also made all 19 of its free throws after missing several against Nigeria.
The Team USA newcomers were quiet during this game; Gamecock alumna A’Ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces) only played 5 minutes and went scoreless with one turnover. Layshia Clarendon (Connecticut Sun), Morgan Tuck (Connecticut Sun), and Kelsey Plum (Las Vegas Aces) didn’t fare any better, although Plum had one assist.
After Australia managed to hold off host team Spain due to a late-game push, they will meet the USA on Sunday to battle for the gold medal. WNBA fans know that a Cambage/Griner matchup is everything you wanted and didn’t know you needed. As the two tallest players in the league (Cambage is listed as 6’8”; Griner is listed at either 6’8” or 6’9. depending on the source), they draw more than their share of attention individually; together, they are must-see TV.
Cambage has been the driving force for the Opals following her return to the WNBA after a years-long hiatus. Her return was nothing short of remarkable as she made “Liz-story” back in July for dropping 53 points on the New York Liberty (which is captained by Team USA’s Tina Charles) and breaking the WNBA record for the most points scored in a game (that record was previously held by Riquna Williams of the Los Angeles Sparks, with 52 points).
Cambage is also the only player who has managed to make herself comfortable in Griner’s head. Griner is used to literally being head and shoulders above most players and using her size and strength to provide premium defense; her mid-range jumper is pretty good, too. Enter Cambage, of equal size and equal skill, who also can hit a three-point shot. It has proven disconcerting at times for Griner and this is something that Staley needs to keep an eye on. With a championship on the line, Griner is one of the mainstays of Team USA’s defense and she cannot afford foul trouble (as she did in the game versus Nigeria); of course, teams tend to target her for that very reason (she got ejected twice this past WNBA season for flagrant fouls against smaller players).
On the flip side, Cambage has also gotten ejected this past season, but for technical fouls due to mouthing off at the referees over perceived missed calls. She can get frustrated easily if baskets and calls aren’t going her way, and this can be used to Team USA’s advantage. Add to that the burden of pretty much carrying the entire Australian team, and you have a situation that’s ripe for exploitation.
It will need to be all hands on deck for Team USA in the championship round, as Australia has several snipers from beyond the arc and the team averages 6.8 steals per game; they are also a good rebounding team. For Griner and Taurasi, this matchup will be bittersweet as the Australian team is coached by Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello and includes their Mercury teammate Stephanie Talbot. Other familiar faces on the Opals for Team USA include Sami Whitcomb (Seattle Storm), Cayla George (Dallas Wings), and Rebecca Allen (New York Liberty).
Watch Team USA #DefendTheCup on Sunday, September 30 at 3:00 pm ET on ESPN. Staley is looking for her first Team USA championship as head coach, and those of us stateside (and especially Gamecock Nation) will root for her to do so. #FIBAWWC #FIBAWWC2018 #USABWNT #Gamecocks #ForeverToThee
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