Defense Propels USA Past Nigeria, 71-40, and Into Semifinals
The halftime direction of Sue Bird (Seattle Storm) and the veteran leadership of the USA Basketball’s Women’s World Cup Team (4-0) continued to deliver on Friday in the team’s 71-40 quarterfinal victory over Nigeria (3-2) in the FIBA World Cup at San Cristobal de la Laguna, Spain.
In Saturday’s semifinal round, the USA will face the winner of tonight’s France versus Belgium quarterfinal. The USA, in search of its first-ever three-peat in World Cup play, extended its tournament winning streak to 20 games after overcoming a slow start at Santiago Martin Arena.
Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm) scored 19 points on 7-of-8 shooting with five assists to help the USA to its largest margin of victory in this World Cup. The 71 points scored left the USA one short of scoring 10,000 all-time points in World Cup competition.
At halftime, with the USA ahead by just four points after Nigeria’s aggressiveness had become a constant source of irritation, Bird was the one to speak up.
“Sue pretty much took over halftime, said Nneka Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks). “She gave us direction on both ends of the court, but more specifically directions of character in terms of how we’re playing out there.”
Bird’s Hall-of-Fame credentials already include three World Cup gold medals, and she may soon become the only player – male or female – to earn five medals in this tournament. Her five assists on Friday put her within eight of USA head coach Dawn Staley’s USA World Cup career assist record of 103.
But, Bird’s contribution on Friday had as much to do with what she said as what she did.
“You want to give them credit,” Bird said of Nigeria, “because they pressured us and they were forcing us to do the hard things. At times, getting open was difficult. And so, we just had to have a talk and be like, ‘Guys, listen, we have to help each other. We can’t leave anybody on an island out there. We have to help each other.’ And once we got that out in the open, I think we did a better job in the second half. It is a long game. You can’t panic in the first half.”
Nigeria, the first African nation to reach a quarterfinal in the World Cup’s 65-year history, held the USA to 25 points fewer than its group phase average of 96.3. The USA scored nine points in the first quarter, half of its previous low against Senegal.
The 20-11 Nigeria lead with 9:19 left in the second quarter was the biggest deficit the USA has faced in this tournament. The USA was behind for 16:38 in the half after trailing for a total of 8:24 in its previous three games.
It was not until Stewart’s 3-pointer put her team ahead, 24-23, with 2:04 left in the first half that the USA had its first lead of the game.
“Stewie’s been tremendous for us,” Staley said. “So, Stewie’s someone we need on the floor a lot. We had to be conscious of getting her in and out of basketball games. I think she played the longest stretch of any player throughout the game, but that was out of necessity.”
The USA opened the third quarter with a 14-4 run and began to take control of the game. The second-half adjustments helped the USA outscore Nigeria 44-17, the biggest second-half margin of the tournament for the USA. The team shot 51.4 percent in the final two quarters after shooting 30.3 percent in the first half.
“We made some adjustments in the style of play, and we played more like we’re capable of playing,” Staley said. “The game slowed down a little bit. We stopped fouling as much, and we just started making plays, so hats go off to Nigeria for playing a great game. But, I was proud of our team today for coming out and making adjustments that they needed to make and getting ahold of the game early in the third quarter.”
Tina Charles (New York Liberty) grabbed a World Cup personal best of 15 rebounds to help the USA outrebound Nigeria, 62-32. A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces) added 11 points and six rebounds.
Historically, the USA is no stranger to overcoming adversity in this tournament. It faced a 37-28 halftime deficit against Russia in the 1998 World Cup that ended with a gold medal. It also held a 72-71 lead with 3:28 remaining against Russia during the 2002 World Cup. The USA finished 9-0 in both of those World Cup appearances.
“Every game is different,” Elena Delle Donne (Washington Mystics) said. “Every game is probably going to be even tougher, and each team plays with such unique ways. It’s almost like we have to kind of feel them out and figure it out as we go, so just being able to make adjustments on the move and stay confident in one another.”
Nigeria, which finished 16th in its only previous World Cup appearance, will have the chance to finish as high as fifth place.
“Nigeria’s a really tough team,” Bird said. “They play hard for forty minutes, and at the start of the game we were just a little out of sorts, trying to deal with their pressure, trying to get going. So, even though we didn’t get out to the best start, the good news is that we responded, individually, collectively. So, once the third quarter rolled around, we got into a little bit of a comfort zone, and the rest is history.”
Frank Bonner II is a contributor to USAB.com as part of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI.