Preview: USA vs. Nigeria
The USA Basketball Women’s World Cup Team (3-0) will meet Nigeria (3-1), a first-time FIBA World Cup quarterfinalist, on Friday (6:30 a.m. EDT on ESPN3) at Santiago Martin Arena in San Cristobal de la Laguna, Canary Islands.
The USA, the two-time defending champion ranked No. 1 by FIBA, has won 19 consecutive World Cup games. This is the second World Cup meeting between the USA and Nigeria. The teams last met in 2006, in a 79-46 group phase victory for the USA.
The USA won its three Group D games by an average of 19.3 points. USA and University of South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley chose to rest Elena Delle Donne (Washington Mystics) and Sue Bird (Seattle Storm), both of whom started during this World Cup, in the 102-76 USA victory over Latvia on Tuesday.
But 6-foot 9 center Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury), who missed two games with an ankle injury, made her first appearance in the tournament. She scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting with six rebounds in just 13:25.
“We were actually going to sit her out one more game so she had another two days of rest,” Staley said, “but Brittney wanted to go. And when a player … a player knows her body more than anybody, so it was great to have her out there. She’s been wanting to play. I talked to her last night after dinner, and she was like, ‘Don’t listen to the trainer. I’m ready to go.’ So, right before the game I asked Ed (Ryan), our trainer, whether or not she could go. He felt good about her going. So, she got the nod.”
Griner’s smile in the mixed zone soon after the game said she was pleased. "Sitting on the bench is the worst,” she said. “It's like being on punishment. It's like, `We're going to take you out and we're going to let you watch your siblings buy candy and toys. But you can't get anything.' That's how it is.”
Nigeria, ranked No. 34 by FIBA, became the first African nation to reach a quarterfinal in the 65-year history of the tournament by defeating Greece, 57-56. Elo Edema Edeferioka, who played at Hofstra and Georgia Tech during her NCAA career, made two free throws – her only points of the game – with 3.2 seconds to go to seal the victory.
Earlier, it appeared Nigeria would run away with the win. An energetic Nigeria defense hounded Greece’s ballhandlers. At one point in the second quarter, Nigeria led by 15 points.
Facing an exit from the tournament on the first day of single-elimination play, Greece picked up the intensity late in the game. Fueled by nine fourth-quarter points from Maria Emmanouela Fasoula, who scored 18 overall, Greece took a 56-55 lead on two free throws by Styliani Kaltsidou with 20 seconds left to play.
Following a missed layup by Nigeria’s Promise Amukamara, Edeferioka collected the offensive rebound and was fouled on her putback attempt. She made both free throws to give Nigeria a one-point advantage with 3.2 three seconds left. A five-second call on the inbound ended Greece’s last chance.
USA Basketball assistant coach Jen Rizzotti (George Washington), who scouted Nigeria, attributed the victory to the team’s effort. “They’re winning games based on defensive intensity and second-chance opportunities and, obviously, their passion,” Rizzotti said. “You can see how into it they are and how excited they are for each other and how passionate they are about playing for their country. Certainly that’s gone a long way in this tournament.”
Nigeria, which enters the game on a three-game winning streak, is guaranteed the best result in its World Cup history. The only previous appearance, in 2006, ended in a 16th-place finish.
Entering the tournament, Nigeria had never won a group phase game at the Olympics or World Cup. This year, it won two. After starting the group phase with an 86-68 loss to Australia on Saturday, Nigeria downed Turkey, 74-68, the next day, and outlasted Argentina, 75-70, on Sept. 25 to finish second in Group B.
Nigeria had 13 steals against Greece, including four by Evelyn Akhator and three by Ezinne Josephine Kalu. It will need a similar defensive effort to disrupt the USA offense, which is averaging 96.3 points per game.
“Their defense is predicated on pressuring you to prevent ball movement,” Rizzotti said. “They deny passes and pressure the ball. They don’t want the ball to go side to side. They really try to get you to keep it on one side and get a steal.”
Nigeria’s electric defensive approach worked wonders against a shorter team like Greece. The game against the USA may be a different story.
“We’re going to have to do a great job of using our size to play over them,” Rizzotti said. “We have to handle their pressure and have the patience to get the ball in the post, high-low. With a lack of size in the post, we have to make sure we do a good job of having that patience to get it in there.”
The USA, with a winning streak that began with the 2006 bronze medal game, is a lot to topple. But, Nigeria doesn’t view competing against the USA as an impossible task.
“They have two eyes just like we have two eyes,” Nigeria guard Sarah Ogoke said. “They don’t have six heads.”
Ryan Gregory is a contributor to USAB.com as part of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI.
The USA is in the hunt to earn a 10th World Cup gold medal at the 2018 FIBA World Cup Sept. 22-30 in Tenerife, Spain. Follow along on the team’s journey on usab.com and through USA Basketball’s social media as the team goes for gold.