Too skilled, too tall, too long, too good – all that could apply individually to Breanna Stewart, who dominated the semifinal and final games as the United States U19 women's basketball national team rolled to its fifth straight FIBA World Championship Sunday in Lithuania. But it could also apply to the American team as a whole, which demolished France in the title game, 61-28, and racked up an average victory margin of 43 points over the nine games of the tournament.
Stewart, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds against France, and scored 16.9 points in just 24.9 minutes a game overall, broke the U.S. U19 scoring records for total points and scoring average with her 152 points over the course of the tournament and 16.9 points per game. The UConn rising sophomore, who helped lead the Huskies to the NCAA championship this spring, was named tournament MVP. She was joined on the all-tournament team by Olivia Epoupa of France, Astou Ndour of Spain, Stephanie Talbot of Australia and Oregon State University’s Jamie Weisner of Canada. Both Ndour and Stewart had also been part of the five-member all-tournament team at the 2011 U19s.
“I was just having fun this tournament,” said Stewart of the MVP award. “I was really looking forward to it. Shots were falling, which is always really nice, but the gold is the most important thing.”
“She deserved it,” said rising University of Kentucky freshman Linnae Harper, who graduated from Chicago's Whitney Young High School this spring. “She led us throughout the whole tournament. When we needed her, she was there. She’s a good team player and a leader. She deserved it.”
But Stewart had plenty of help. Morgan Tuck, another Connecticut Husky, was the second-leading scorer at 13.1 ppg and A’ja Wilson, who is still in high school, came off the bench to average a team-high 7.9 rebounds to go with 10.9 points a game.
Credit also must go to Moriah Jefferson (UConn again), who had 31 assists and just nine turnovers in the nine straight U.S. wins, and spearheaded an American defense that averaged an incredible 15.8 steals a game and forced 212 turnovers.
Defense proved to be the key against France, which had given the Americans their stiffest challenge when the two teams met for the first time on Wednesday in the second round of the preliminaries. In that game, the U.S. took the lead late in the first quarter and held on for a 69-63 win, their narrowest margin of the tournament, but to get there, they had to fend off a late French comeback. The French, who challenged throughout the game, put together a 6-0 run in the game's final minutes, pulling to within two points, 65-63, with just over a minute to play. In the game's final seconds, Duke's Alexis Jones took a hand-off from Tuck and drained a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired, then blocked a 3-point attempt by French sharpshooter Mamignan Toure to ice that game for the Americans.
“We have a ton of respect for France,” said USA U19 and University of Miami head coach Katie Meier after Wednesday's close call. “They match us athletically. They are better than us in pace of play and they controlled the tempo tonight. We couldn’t impose our will on them, because they’re a very veteran team. We had to play their game and break through our box of tricks. We had to dig through our half court offenses and our half court defenses and really execute. We figured it out, but it took a long time to figure it out. They’re a very sophisticated, high-level basketball club.”
But the Americans had things figured out by Sunday and with everything on the line for the medals, there were to be no such comebacks for France. The U.S. took an 8-6 lead midway through the first half and never trailed thereafter, instead steadily expanding the gap that separated them from the French. Meanwhile, the U.S. defenders held the French to 20 points in the opening half and to just eight points in the second half.
“Obviously we had to grind it out on the offensive end,” said Meier. “At halftime we talked about our defense. They had only scored 20 points and that was huge for us. So, we just said that when push comes to shove, you win championships with your defense, so go out there and lock down and stay together as a team. That was just an amazing performance.”
The U19s, with three players who will compete in high school this year (Wilson, Brianna Turner and Gabby Green), were dominant in every aspect of the game, led by Stewart, who was the youngster when the U19s won the world title in Chile in 2011. In that event, the Americans lost a game, to Canada, 64-52, though they ultimately survived to take home the gold. But this time around, there were no stumbles.
Coach Katie Meier had plenty of weapons, from Stewart, Tuck and Wilson to rising talents such as Alexis Jones (10.0 ppg), Harper (2.0 A/TO) and Tennessee's Bashaara Graves (59.2-percent shooting).
|Tennessee's Bashaara Graves was one of the many weapons at Coach Katie Meier's disposal in the Americans' march to the U19 world title. (Photo courtesy FIBA.com)|
The last time the U19 team went unbeaten was in 2007, when a team led by Krystal Thomas, Jantel Lavender and Monica Wright also went 9-0, and the last time it didn’t win gold was in 2001, when coach Geno Auriemma settled for bronze with a roster than included Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, Alana Beard, Monqieu Currie, Nicole Powell and Shameka Christon.
Stewart, though, made sure that wouldn’t happen in Lithuania, blocking 12 shots, picking up 15 steals, and pulling down 6.2 boards per game in addition to her recordbreaking scoring performance.
Despite the loss, France made history when it took the silver, its first medal in FIBA U19 World Championship history.
Meanwhile, in the day's other medal action, Australia (7-2), bounced back from its 77-54 semifinal loss to the Americans, to take the bronze with a 73-68 win over Spain, also 7-2. The Spaniards had trounced the Aussies, 81-63, when the two teams met a week ago in the opening round of preliminaries and looked to be on the brink of another victory when a Yaiza Rodriguez Ortego's trey gave Spain a 48-31 edge, with 6:49 to go in the third period. But Australia's Gems dug deep, their defenders holding Spain scoreless for more than five minutes as they gradually chipped into the lead, closing out the third quarter with the score 51-43, Spain still on top, but the game once again within reach. The Gems then put together a 15-0 run over the first five minutes of the final frame, capturing the lead on a midrange jumper by Carley Mijovic at the 7:45 mark and surviving a 6-2 Spanish surge to hang on for the win. Today's bronze marked Australia's first U19 medal since 1997 and upped its medal totals in U19 play to one gold (1993), one silver (1997) and two bronze medals (1989, 2013).
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