Training Concluded, Exhibition Schedule Up Next For Improving USA U19 Squad
A college regular season is about four months in length, followed by conference and NCAA tournaments that could stretch out the season another five or six weeks, plus all the time spent in pre-season practices, collegiate teams can have up to six months to prepare for a championship match-up.
Now, condense that season into a three-week span. That’s how much time the 2017 USA Basketball Women’s U19 World Cup Team has to train and prepare to try and return home from the July 22-30 FIBA U19 World Cup with the USA’s seventh-straight gold medal.
That said, the USA squad has been taking every advantage of the condensed schedule.
After gathering for a team dinner July 7, the USA squad trained twice each day July 8-14 at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The U19 women also held off-court activities that helped everyone get to know each other better – such as cooking dinner one night and taking turns coming up with ‘five facts’ regarding various aspects of Italy, which has helped them gel.
Watching all week, one could see improvements in the team from the on-court practices and off-court activities.
“This week has been very, very competitive,” said USA Basketball newcomer Alecia ‘Sug’ Sutton (Texas). “Starting from the beginning of the week we didn’t know each other, we didn’t know any plays, we didn’t know how to play with each other. And now, we’re gelling. Our offense is going well. Our defense is good and our chemistry is good as well.”
Consider this past week to be the team’s pre-season training, which included drills and intrasquad scrimmages in the morning and full game scrimmages against a talented team of local men in the evenings.
“We have seen improvement in every aspect of the game, developing that team chemistry that is necessary for us to be successful on the court,” two-time Olympic medalist and USA U19 head coach Suzie McConnell-Serio (Pittsburgh). “We’re getting good looks and capitalizing on opportunities offensively. Then, defensively, that’s the biggest growth we’ve seen. These players are very talented and skilled offensively. But, defensively, getting them to play together as a team from day one until now, we are a different team. Our ball pressure, weak-side help, rebounding, finishing our defense have all gotten better. I’m very pleased with the improvement we have seen on the defensive end.”
As McConnell-Serio intimated, the team has morphed a great deal. The first day was a little choppy, due to the fact that many of them had never played together.
However, as the week wore on, the USA women began improving. They got to know each other’s tendencies. No-look passes were caught, their transition game started clicking and the 12 individuals began to mold into a team.
“We’ve improved a lot, just being able to be comfortable with each other and knowing our strengths and weaknesses,” said Oregon’s 6-foot-4 sophomore Ruthy Hebard, who captured gold as a member of the 2016 USA U18 National Team. “It’s been really fun to see and I’m really excited for Italy.”
Next up are three exhibition games. The USA travels to Italy today after having put in most of its offenses and defenses. Now comes the time to hone those and start working them to perfection.
“With us, we’ve been playing against guys trying to play FIBA rules,” said McConnell-Serio. “Going to Italy early and being able to compete against teams that play by the international basketball rules every single day is going to be huge for us in preparing us for the competition. It’s going to be great for us to be able to play against teams other than ourselves and the guys we’ve played in training camp.”
The U.S. squad arrives in Italy July 16 and will compete in a three-game, four-team exhibition tournament against Italy, Latvia and Spain July 17-19.
“I’m really looking forward to playing those warm-up games, just to get over there and get motivated even more to win the gold. It’s going to be fun,” said Hebard.
As good as the training has been, there’s nothing that fully prepares U.S. athletes for the differences in the international rules, which include a 24-second clock, wider lane and an eight-second backcourt violation, among others.
“It’s huge,” said Connecticut’s diminutive guard Crystal Dangerfield on the importance of the exhibition schedule.
And she should know. Two years ago, Dangerfield was one of the youngest athletes on the gold medal-winning USA U19 World Cup Team that also played three exhibitions ahead of the official U19 World Cup opener.
“That lets us get used to the physicality, which is different,” Dangerfield continued. “Internationally, it’s called different, the speed is different as well. So, just to be able to get into the rhythm with those three games, it’s like a tune-up tournament. It’ll really help us.”
“I’m ready for the pre-tournament in Italy,” added Sutton. “It’ll help us a lot to get used to how they play internationally, especially for new players like me. For example, I don’t really know the international rules very well, so that’s going to help us a lot as a team.”
Following the warm-up tournament, the USA squad will have two more days to prep for the U19 World Cup. In addition to practice, the team will have an opportunity to scrimmage France July 20 and one more day to fine-tune plays before tipping off official U19 preliminary play against Mali July 22, followed by games against China on July 23 and host Italy July 25.
The medal round, which is played in a knockout format – win and continue playing for gold or lose and be relegated to the classification round – begins with the July 26 round of 16, quarterfinals will be held July 28, semifinals on July 29 and the gold medalist will be crowned July 30.
And the USA, six-time defending FIBA U19 gold medalists, is hoping to once again be atop that medal stand hearing “We Are The Champions” blaring throughout the arena.
“It’s exciting,” said McConnell-Serio, who coached the USA to gold at the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship. “The players are excited to travel. We’ve done two-a-days here in Colorado Springs for the past week, and I’m ready for this journey to begin of playing for a gold medal.”