PHOTO GALLERY - USA vs Great Britain
Team USA got a major wake-up call Wednesday evening in Manchester, England.
To be fair, they deserved one. After a fast-paced two-day training camp in Washington, D.C. and Monday night's 99-67 defeat of Brazil in a physical exhibition game, the men's and women's U.S. National Basketball teams headed to the airport in the middle of the night to wing their way across the pond, arriving late Tuesday. Though the Americans declined to make excuses, with jet lag and a five-hour time change factored in, they can be forgiven for a rather sluggish start.
But if someone thought the Americans could sleepwalk through their exhibition game against Great Britain -- a team so bad just four years ago that FIBA seriously considered denying them the automatic qualification typically accorded the Olympic hosts -- then Tom Maher and his overhauled British national women's team showed them they had another think coming.
Don't let the final score fool you: The British came to play. And for the better part of the opening period, they outplayed their American counterparts.
The two teams exchanged buckets and turnovers for the first two minutes, but at the 7:48 mark Britain's Stef Collins, a former standout at St. Bonaventure, nailed a three to tie the score at six-all and ignite a 15-4 British run. Florida's Azania Stewart chipped in back-to-back buckets, including a traditional three-point play, Bermudan Jenaya Wade-Fray (Tennessee-Chattanooga) came off the bench to contribute, and the always-reliable Jo Leedham, who was drafted by the Connecticut Sun after graduating as the No. 1 Division II player in the U.S. out of Franklin Pierce, did her thing with another pair of consecutive buckets. To the surprise of the Americans, with just under three minutes to go in the opening period, the score stood at 21-10, Great Britain.
That's right. Not a typo. Britain on top, 21-10.
Throughout that span, the U.S. zone defense had been as permeable as Swiss cheese, while on the other side, scrappy British defenders packed the paint, forcing the Americans to settle for jump shots, most of which missed the mark. Candace Parker was good for a long two, her feet just inside the three-point arc early in the fray, and Tina Charles got the shooter's bounce on a chippie, but other than that, the U.S. was held scoreless throughout the nearly five-minute span.
It didn't help that despite their significant height advantage, the U.S. didn't do much of a job of blocking out, while the Brits hustled after every 50-50 ball.
To say that the British "put a scare into the Americans" would overstate the case, however. The U.S. players appeared a bit frustrated but never seemed flustered, the veterans confident in their ability to turn things around. Head coach Geno Auriemma didn't even call a timeout as he watched the British gradually extend their lead, letting his squadron of WNBA All Stars play through their problems. He did, however, make a significant adjustment during the media timeout at the 4:00 minute-mark, putting Lindsay Whalen on the floor with the score then 15-10 in favor of the hosts.
Sue Bird has not yet returned to the team while she attends to a death in her family; she is expected to rejoin her teammates later this week in Turkey.
But for reasons that baffle, Whalen, who did an outstanding job of standing in for Bird in Monday's match-up with Brazil, sat glued to the bench for the first six minutes of play as Auriemma started a line-up consisting of Diana Taurasi (G/F), Tamika Catchings (F), Sylvia Fowles (C), Candace Parker (F/C) and Seimone Augustus (F). Perhaps Geno bought into the hype that he had multiple players, including former Huskey Diana Taurasi and Tennessee superstar Candace Parker, who can play every position from the one to the five. That they can. But they do not play them all equally well.
Whalen's arrival seemed to stabilize her teammates and cut down on the turnovers that were beginning to mount up, though the British extended their lead by another six points even after her entry into the game.
It was Angel McCoughtry, who came off the bench with 2:45 to go in the opening period, who finally stopped the hemmorghaging for the United States, knocking down two free throws to spark what would become a 21-0 U.S. run that spanned the first two periods. McCoughtry earned her trip to the line doing what her teammates, for the most part, had not -- by attacking the basket.
Maya Moore also came in off the bench and started her scoring with a pair of free throws after being fouled on her way to the hole, tagging Stewart, one of Britain's few bigs, with her second foul in the opening period. Whalen contributed an and-one, taking a feed from McCoughtry and finishing on a fast-break lay-up despite contact, then knocking down the free throw to cut the British lead to four points with two minutes still to go in the first quarter. Moore added a long two and a mid-range jumper to erase the deficit, tying the score at 21 with a minute remaining, and by the time the buzzer sounded the end of the first quarter, the U.S. held a 25-21 advantage.
From there, it was largely business as usual for the Americans, who continued their run into the opening minutes of the second period, with multiple scorers getting into the act. But it would be Moore who would do most of the heavy-lifting in turning the momentum of the game around, contributing 15 of her team-best 18 points in the opening half to send the Americans to the locker room up by by double digits, 47-32.
“I’m not surprised by their start, I’m surprised by ours,” Auriemma said afterward. “When you’re playing a road game and you’re the United States, you always expect the other team to be ready, or more ready, than they ever will be. The emotions of the game were very high for them at the beginning. We were kind of passive in our offense and in our defense. The English team is very disciplined on the offensive end. They took advantage of whatever mistakes we made. It might have been the best thing that happened to us, to be honest with you, to get down 10, 11 at one time. Because, sometimes when you’re the U.S. and you’re constantly playing from ahead, you never get an opportunity to play from behind and see how you respond. It might have been a good thing for us that that happened."
For their part, the British never surrendered. The U.S. surge had been fueled by their fast-break transition game, most of which started out of a high-intensity pressure defense that cost the British 26 turnovers by game's end. The U.S. also tallied 17 steals, to just one take-away by Great Britain.
But when the Americans grew lackadaisical in the second half, taking their foot off the pedal on defense as their lead continued to grow, the British were quick to take advantage. They started the third period on a 12-4 run, and cut the U.S. lead back to single digits on a trey by Collins, who finished with 14 points and four assists.
Auriemma called a quick time out, and whatever he said in the huddle had its intended effect, as the Americans got back into high gear, steamrolling their way to the 88-63 finish.
Collins described the experience from the British viewpoint: "They got aggressive, trapping us offensively and that hurt us, forcing us to turn the ball over, but it was good to stay competitive in parts and we can be happy with how we attacked the game."
She was pleased with how her team responded: "This was an amazing opportunity to play the USA. They are the number one team in the world and they came in with a lot of fire power, more power and more athleticism, so it was good that we matched up with them most of the time," Collins said.
British head coach Tom Maher, who has built a career around helping Olympic hosts raise their standard of women's basketball play, was also happy with the progress his charges have made: "We've come so far and I couldn't be prouder of the team. God willing everyone stays healthy, I think the country will be proud of their team. We're a contender and a participator in the A grade."
"Our players will look back on this as a milestone in their careers, hopefully," added Maher. "What a fantastic dress rehearsal for the Olympics."
In addition to Moore's 18 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block, Whalen contributed 13 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals. And though they were the only two U.S. players to reach double digits, by game's end, every player in U.S. red had contributed both a bucket and a board, including Asjha Jones, who was sidlined by a minor foot injury for Monday's game, but played 13 minutes Wednesday, chipping in two points on one-of-five from the field.
Leedham led the way for Great Britain with a game-high 21 points, plus four boards and four assists, while Collins added 14 points and four assists, but coughed up seven turnovers. Despite the loss, the game was a confidence-builder for Britain, who -- if their 74-67 exhibition win last week over European powerhouse France had not been enough -- sent a loud and clear message with their gutsy play in this game that whatever their record might have been in the past, they are no longer a team to be trifled with.
The Americans, who head next to Istanbul for warm-up games with Croatia and Turkey, also had several take-aways from the match-up. First and foremost, never underestimate your opponent. Second, Auriemma will likely spend the next few days inspiring some better work on the boards -- the U.S. won the battle on the glass, but by just 47-43, nowhere near the margin they should have, given their superiority in both height and experience.
The U.S. should also come away from the game with renewed confidence in both their bench and their ability to spring back in the face of adversity. And finally (hopefully), Auriemma will have gotten the message that however talented his forwards and wings may be, a capable point guard is a very nice thing to have.
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