Opportunity Knocks for 28 18-And-Unders
Colorado Springs, Colorado
On Friday afternoon 27 athletes descended upon the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to vie for one of 12 coveted roster spots on the2014 USA Basketball Women’s U18 National Team. By Saturday morning, that number grew by one as University of Texas signee Ariel Atkins (Duncanville H.S. / Duncanville, Texas) was added to the trials roster on Friday evening.
Under the leadership of four-time Olympic champion -- three as an athlete and one as an assistant coach -- Dawn Staley, who is the head basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, the athletes have gone through three trials sessions and have three more to go before the team announcement on Monday night. The USA U18 squad eventually will compete in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship at the USOTC Aug. 6-10.
“I got a call (from USA Basketball’s Jamie Carey) asking if I could come out, and I was like, ‘when?’ And she was like, ‘tomorrow,’” said Atkins about her last-minute weekend plans. “I was so excited. It’s just a blessing. I just wanted to come out and try my hardest. I (didn’t) know anything about what it was like. Some of these girls have been here before, but I didn’t know what to expect. Everybody just told me to go out there and play hard. I prayed almost the whole way out here on the plane. I’m just trying my hardest to play my game and not try to be outside of myself.”
Saturday morning the trials consisted of 3x3 basketball games, which are fast-paced as they are played in a half-court setting with a running clock. By Saturday afternoon, Staley was putting in plays and running the athletes through a variety of drills before the players were split into teams and began scrimmaging. Sunday morning’s session started off much the same, but there was even more scrimmaging and as athletes realized their time was limited in front of the committee, they fought for every rebound, every loose ball and did whatever they could to stand out and earn a spot.
To say the competition is fierce for the 12 roster spots would be an understatement. The trials roster is a veritable who’s who among the nation’s top 18-and-unders. There are three who split the top 2014 National Player of the Year honors, who are the virtual cherry on top of a cake comprised of All-Americans, state tournament champions, as well as area and state player of the year honorees.
“A hard point guard to guard is Receé (Caldwell),” Atkins said of her competition. “She’s very vocal. She talks a lot. So, when you’re playing against her, you’re trying to think and she’s yelling in your ears. I’m supposed to be yelling at her. So, it’s different. She’s a vocal leader. Also, Napheesa (Collier) is very versatile. She can be a guard. She can be a post, anything like that. Those are probably the two people I’ve guarded the most.”
Most of the athletes are signed or have given a verbal commitment to the nation’s top women’s basketball programs, including, but not limited to: California, Connecticut, Duke, Louisville, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Texas and UCLA. In fact, Caldwell is headed to UCLA this fall, and Collier will play for UConn in 2015. Those programs do not sign players who do not give their all on every play.
“Back at home you have a couple good players here and there,” said Ali Patberg (Columbus North H.S. / Columbus, Ind.), who has verbally committed to Notre Dame. “But, it’s like everywhere here, you know? You drive to the basket and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to meet three other people at the rim who are just as good.’ Everyone is really good. Everyone is super-competitive, so they’re going to give their all. It’s a really good experience to learn from and better myself as a player.”
With this much talent on the court, it’s not always easy to rise above the fray and stand out. Atkins has a plan, however, to do just that.
“I want to be the best teammate that anybody’s ever had,” expressed Atkins on what she’s trying to convey. “That’s my goal. You know how some teammates can be, the good players can be rude sometimes; that’s not me. I want to welcome everybody. Even though I came in late, I want to make everybody feel like, ‘She’s a great teammate. I can come talk to her about this or that.’ I just want to be intense, be a great teammate and a vocal leader.”
Patberg echoed those sentiments in her own way.
“Being a good leader,” was Patberg’s answer to her goals for the weekend. “Taking care of the ball. Getting other people looks. I can create for myself, but I can create for others, too. Being a good teammate and getting them the ball where they’re best at. If it’s the post, get them the ball in the post. If they’re good at shooting, then I’ll drive and kick it out.”
There are just three more sessions in which to impress the USA Basketball Women’s Junior National Team Committe. What are the committee members looking for? A sharp-shooter like Angel McCoughtry and Diana Taurasi? Someone who can bang inside like Tina Charles or Sylvia Fowles? Someone with versatility, who can step onto the court and play multiple positions like Candace Parker? Or someone who can lead a team likeSue Bird? Or someone who dives for every loose ball and is the first one to help up a teammate when they have fallen like Tamika Catchings? The committee generally looks for all of those things, but one of the main factors in selecting a team always has been: is this player a good teammate? Can she give more to the team than she gets out of it?
Patberg received some good advice from Taya Reimer, who won gold with the 2011 USA U16 and 2012 USA U17 National Teams and an honorary bronze at the 2011 FIBA 3x3 Youth World Championship.
“(Taya) told me to come, have fun, play my game, be vocal, be a good leader, just show them what you’ve worked so hard for.”
No matter what happens at the end of this weekend, as long as the athletes have fun and give it everything they’ve got, they can be proud that they are among the top 28 players in the nation in their age group.
“It’s been a lot of fun so far,” Patberg said. “I’ve met a lot of new people. The atmosphere is awesome. Everyone is relaxed, but in the same sense we’re really competitive. We want to do our best for each other. It’s been good. To make the team, it would mean a lot. Just knowing that I … just being here means a lot already. So, if I made it, it would be amazing. But just knowing I have a chance to try and play for my country means a lot.”