Tough Competition In U19 World Cups Helps Rising Stars To Shine
The FIBA U19 World Cup for Women, which was launched in 1985 as the FIBA Junior World Championship, has seen its share of young athletes make the first ripples of what would become very successful basketball careers.
Over the years, 14 U.S. Olympic and/or World Championship medalists got their first, real taste of what it takes to compete at the international level by playing in the U19 World Cup. Athletes such as Lisa Leslie, Maya Moore, Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Katie Smith, Dawn Staley and Diana Taurasi were all challenged internationally at the U19s.
The U19 World Cup is not only a place to make an international debut from a U.S. standpoint. Australia’s Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor defeated Tamika Catchings and the 1997 USA Junior World Championship Team in preliminary play, and took the USA team into overtime in the gold medal game, which marked the USA’s historic first gold medal victory in the event. Also competing in the 1997 Junior Worlds was a young, rising Spanish star and eventual two-time Olympian, Laia Palau.
More recent international standouts who first turned heads at the U19s include Australia’s Liz Cambage, Canada’s Plouffe sisters Katherine and Michelle and Spain’s Astou Ndour at the 2011 U19s. In 2013, which saw the return of Ndour, the event featured France’s Olivia Epoupa and Spain’s Leticia Romero Gonzalez; while 2015 was a coming out party for Russia’s Maria Vadeeva and Spain’s Angela Salvadores.
While the USA has generally had an easy run through FIBA Americas U18 competition – the U.S. has outscored opponents by nearly 50 points a game over the past six U18s – it is easy to see that that is not the case once Americans are pitted against U19 teams from the rest of the world, something two-time U19 gold medalist, and 2013 U19 World Championship MVP, Breanna Stewart remembers about her FIBA U19 World Cup experiences.
“The competition improves tremendously between the U18s and U19s,” said Stewart, who won a U18 gold medal in 2012. “In the U19s you are playing the best in the world, and every time we faced teams like Australia and France, they always tried to knock us off. Every year they get closer and closer to matching our level of play.”
Stewart’s team in 2011, prior to the medal round, lost to Canada and narrowly defeated China by just three points. In the must-win quarterfinal game, the USA secured a come-from-behind win over France to advance to the semis.
In 2013, which featured 17-year-old A’ja Wilson playing for the first time for the stars and stripes, France again gave the USA a tough game, but the red, white and blue eventually prevailed.
Wilson returned in 2015 and before earning MVP honors and her second U19 gold medal, had to battle a tough host Russia in the gold medal game, in which the U.S. led by just three points with 4:21 to play before pulling out the eight-point victory.
It’s this type of competition that helps athletes improve their game, something not lost on the 2017 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
“It helped my game a lot, because I had a role change, which put me out of my comfort zone,” said Wilson, who came off the bench in 2013 and was a starter in 2015. “That helped me gain more confidence in my game. I gained more confidence within myself because of the different roles I had playing on both teams.”
2016 Olympic gold medalist Stewart agrees with her.
“Playing in two U19 World Championships helped me improve my game a lot,” said Stewart. “In my first one I was playing against older players, and in my second one it helped me develop more of a leadership role, because I had been there before.”
Six-time defending U19 gold medalist, the USA is eyeing a seventh-straight gold this summer. However, it is not going to be easy with a bullseye once again on the team’s back.
“I think not just focusing in on winning the gold medal is important,” was the advice of Catchings, a four-time Olympic and two-time World Championship gold medalist who knows the significance of team chemistry. “Even more important, how can they can gel together quickly to become the best team that they can be? Coaches have the majority of the stress in developing the team quickly. But, the player’s responsibility is bringing everything that you are good at to the table and continuing to get better every day.”
The journey to the 12th FIBA U19 World Cup begins Thursday for 33 of the nation’s top 19-and-unders. Following four days of trials, that list will be pared to the final, 12-member team that will travel to Italy to vie for a gold medal.
Competing on the 2017 USA U19 World Cup Team will not only provide an opportunity for them to flourish on the international level and play against athletes they may face over and over again throughout their career, but the prospect of enhancing one’s game, making lifelong friends and memories is also something that awaits the talented group that will be announced May 21.
“I just remember how much fun it was to be able to come together with players that I had never played with and compete as the USA Junior World Championship Team representing our country,” added Catchings. “While the preparation was hard, it was fun. And, I feel like every day as a team we got better and better, and our coaches pushed us to be better than even we thought we could. That's what I have loved about the USA journey, all of the coaches that have helped push us to have fun, and be better on and off the court.”
And hopefully there is a medal of gold at the end of the journey.
The FIBA U19 World Cup, originally known as the Junior World Championship and U19 World Championship, was held every four years from 1983-2005. FIBA changed its calendar, however, and since 2007 the event has been contested every other year. USA Basketball teams are 73-12 overall and have won seven gold medals and one bronze medal in the 11 editions of the event.