USA U23s Readying For Inaugural Four Nations Tournament
The good news is that nobody should miss any class. There may be some jetlag involved, but everyone is free for the first day of school.
The only reason that is important is because the end of summer just became a whole lot busier for 12 premier women’s college basketball players and their three coaches – USA U23 and University of Louisville head coach Jeff Walz and U23 assistant coaches Courtney Banghart (Princeton) and Michelle Clark-Heard (Western Kentucky) – with their selection to the USA Women’s U23 National Team. The team will compete in the inaugural U24 Four Nations Tournament Aug. 12-15 in Tokyo, Japan.
It was an opportunity that many of the top, female collegiate athletes – 36 to be exact – were not willing to skip. Transformed into a round-robin tournament format, the U23 camp was high-flying, end-to-end competition for five days at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And, it was a grind. A grind that only 12 will look back on and say they conquered.
For some, it’s a familiar place. Eight members of the team are USA Basketball gold medalists, led by Arike Ogunbowale’s (Notre Dame/Milwaukee, Wis.) four golds and one silver.
Others, including Monique Billings (UCLA/Corona, Calif.), Brittany McPhee (Stanford/Normandy Park, Wash.) Kelsey Mitchell (Ohio State/Cincinnati, Ohio) and Jaime Nared (Tennessee/Portland, Ore.), are yet to don the red, white and blue in an international competition.
“I’m just really excited and humbled to be on this team with such talented players,” said McPhee, who is the third Cardinal athlete to play internationally this summer, although she is the only one of the three to compete for the USA. “My goal is just to work hard and try to make this the best experience possible. Because everyone is so talented here, it really is the little things that separate us from other players and other teams. I’m going to try to focus on those, so I can help our team pull out wins.”
McPhee, who helped Stanford to the NCAA Tournament Final Four in 2016-17 and averaged 13.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per game, is joined on the USA roster by three fellow Pacific-12 Conference standouts in Billings, Jordin Canada (UCLA/Los Angeles, Calif.) and Sabrina Ionescu (Oregon/Walnut Creek, Calif.), offering up the unique opportunity for McPhee to team up with her conference counterparts.
“It’s definitely fun just to get know them off the court and play with them,” McPhee explained. “Other than practice, you don’t have to worry about guarding them anymore. You get to play with them as your advantage for once.”
The familiar face for Nared is a bit different, though. It’s her own college teammate, Mercedes Russell (Tennessee/Springfield, Ore.).
“This is definitely cool,” said Nared. “We have received a lot of love from our Tennessee fans. It’s fun to be able to play with your teammate in a different setting. Obviously, this is a different team with different types of players, but I’m excited to share this experience with her.”
Nared and Russell led the Vols to a 20-12 record in 2016-17. About 250 miles northwest, their USA head coach, Walz, guided Louisville to a 29-8 record, including a win over Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament’s second round. That was then. This is now, and the trio are wearing the same colors at the moment.
“I love coach Walz,” added Nared, who scored 11 points against Louisville in the Vols’ NCAA Tournament exit. “I just love the way he teaches. He’s a great coach. I really like the way he explains things.
“I’ve been around coaches that have different mindsets with how they explain the game, but he really goes in depth and tells you different options and things you should see or do in the set. It’s really about you understanding more of the game instead of you just going through and running plays, and that’s what I really like about him as a coach.”
Just a week in, this experience has proven to be a learning process for everyone involved. It is an inaugural U23 competition, after all. No matter how involved any player or coach has been with USA Basketball, this will be new.
“I’m excited – overwhelmed, really,” said Brown, who last competed with USA as a member of the 2013 U16 National Team, which claimed gold in Cancun, Mexico. “It’s been a while for me to get back to this point, but I’ve been working for this and coming to trials each time I could, so I’m really excited for this opportunity.”
The 6-foot-7 Brown was a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association All-American following her sophomore season, but on this stage, she isn’t so sure she will have to assume a leadership role.
“I think it’s important to be a good teammate, to be a motivator and continue to do what helped me get here,” she noted. “But, there are girls like Mercedes Russell, and she has way more international experience. I’m trying to learn from her. I’m learning just like everybody else is, but anywhere I can give some pointers, I will.”
Some comfort exists simply due to the fact all of the athletes already have competed at a high level.
That’s not going to deter Coach Walz’s focus, or the team’s, either. There’s a lot to learn, even if school doesn’t start for another couple of weeks.
2017 U24 Four Nations Tournament
The 2017 U24 Four Nations Tournament is a round-robin tournament to be played Aug. 12-15 at Katayanagi Arena in Tokyo.
The USA will play Australia on Aug. 12, Canada on Aug. 13 and host Japan on Aug. 15.
The U24 Four Nations Tournament will provide meaningful competition and development opportunities. The USA’s participation in the tournament is intended to help further develop the USA Basketball athlete pipeline and to help prepare athletes for possible future participation in the USA Basketball Women’s National Team pool.