USA U19 Women Down Belgium 67-59 in Tight Semifinals Battle
Trailing by a point with 3:16 remaining in the game, the USA U19 women (6-0) scored the final nine points of the contest and came away with a 67-59 semifinal victory over Belgium (5-1) in FIBA U19 World Cup semifinal action on Saturday night in Bangkok, Thailand. The U.S. will face Australia (5-1) in Sunday’s gold medal contest (8:30 a.m. EDT), which viewers in the United States can watch on ESPN+.
Australia defeated Spain (5-1) 64-55 in the first semifinal game to earn its gold medal game berth.
Belgium in the fourth quarter erased a nine-point deficit with a 12-2 run to push ahead 59-58. However, Rhyne Howard (Kentucky/Cleveland, Tenn.), who was 2-of-3 from 3-point and scored a team-high 14 points on the night, hit a 3 at 2:52 to lift the U.S. to 61-59. That energized the USA’s defense, which held Belgium to 0-of-5 from the field and forced a pair of turnovers over the remainder of the game.
“That’s what started it for us at the end of the game,” said rising South Carolina freshman Aliyah Boston (Worcester Academy, Mass./St. Thomas, USVI), who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds. “Rhyne hit a 3 and then we got a stop. Paige (Bueckers) came down and hit a jumper and then we went down and got a stop. Then Naz (Hillmon-Baker) came down and did a post move and scored. That, plus the energy we had from the bench, is what helped us get that win.”
“Belgium is a really good basketball team and they’re very well coached,” said Jeff Walz, USA U19 and University of Louisville head coach. “Their guard pressure really caused us a lot of problems. They were able to dictate what they wanted to do to us defensively.
“There were a couple of moments in the game where we had a chance to separate ourselves, but we missed free throws or we were careless with the basketball or we’d have a defensive breakdown, and when you’re playing in games like this against talented teams, you’ve got to execute. But I was really pleased with how they finished the game.”
In addition to Boston and Howard, also scoring in double digits were Paige Bueckers (Hopkins H.S./St. Louis Park, Minn.), who finished with 13 points, seven assists and three steals; and Naz Hillmon-Baker (Michigan/Cleveland, Ohio), who also scored 12 points and nabbed six rebounds.
The hard-fought game featured 10 lead changes and three tied scores. The score in the first quarter alone see-sawed six times and after closing the first stanza on a 7-2 spurt, the USA was up 15-11.
Belgium claimed a 16-15 edge early in the second period before the Americans began building momentum. Holding the European squad to one 3-pointer over a six-minute span, the U.S. raced ahead 31-19 and looked to be separating. But the pendulum swung back, and Belgium closed the first half by outscoring the Americans 7-2 and closed the gap to 33-26 at halftime.
“Belgium is very tough, and they move a lot, so we got caught staring at the ball sometimes and then they got wide-open cuts,” said Howard.
Hillmon-Baker scored six points in an 8-0 second half opening run, but again Belgium countered, and the USA managed to up its lead to nine points, 49-40, with 10 minutes to play.
With seven minutes remaining in the contest, the USA’s lead was still nine, 56-47. And that’s when Belgium began to make a final run. Between fouls, missed shots and turnovers, the U.S. found itself unable to score, while Belgium hit some big shots and came to within a point, 56-55, with less than five minutes to play.
Walz called a timeout to regroup his team.
“He told us to stay back a little bit, but to jab at them a little bit to make them think you’re coming up,” said Howard on one of the adjustments made. “So when they do drive, we could still take it away.”
Out of the timeout, Boston got a layup and the U.S. made a defensive stop. However, a pair of steals by Belgium were converted to four points and Belgium held its first lead since early in the second quarter, 59-58.
“We just had to work hard,” said Boston. “We executed pretty well, we just had to pick it up on the defensive end. I think that’s why they went on a little bit of a run close to the end of the fourth quarter. But once we picked it up and started executing on defense, we really slowed them down. It was a fight, but we knew what we wanted. We knew that we needed to get to the gold medal game and we just had to get over the hump.”
Belgium owned a 44-37 edge on the boards and its guard Maxuella Lisowa Mbaka scored a game-high 21 points. But, the USA converted Belgium’s 22 turnovers into 19 points and outscored Belgium in the paint by 46-24 and 15-4 second-chance points.
The USA’s final opponent was also its first of the tournament. On July 20 the U.S. claimed a 79-56 victory over the Aussies. Since then, both teams have improved and the Australian’s defeated a very strong Spanish squad to advance to the gold medal game.
The Americans know that it will be a much more difficult task to defeat Australia a second time.
“We’ve got one more 45-minute practice to try to clean things up as much as we can before we go up against a very talented Australia team,” said Walz. “I’ll go back and look at our game against Australia just to see what they did. But I’m not taking anything away from that. We basically won one quarter. It was 21-4 in the third quarter, and everything else was very competitive. Since then, they’ve gotten better. We’ve gotten better, and now it’s going to be, who’s willing to compete and who’s willing to do the dirty things to try and win a gold medal.
“We have to know that when we played them the first game, it was the first game of the tournament,” said Howard. “We know that they’ve gotten better. But we’ve also gotten better. We just have to come prepared and stay focused.”
In the 5th-8th classification semifinals, China (4-2) downed Mali (1-5) 67-54 and Canada (4-2) clipped Japan (3-3) 62-59.
In the 9th-12th classification semifinals, Colombia (2-4) was edged by South Korea (2-4) 51-49 and Hungary 3-3) defeated Argentina (2-4) 66-61.
In the 13th-16th classification semifinals, Latvia (4-2) defeated Mozambique (1-5) 63-49 and Germany (1-5) had no trouble against host Thailand (0-5) 86-49.
Walz is being assisted by collegiate head coaches Natasha Adair (Delaware) and Cori Close (UCLA).
Originally known as the FIBA Junior World Championship, the tournament was held every four years starting in 1985. FIBA changed its calendar in 2005 and now conducts the U19 World Cup every other year.
Including its six wins in Bangkok, USA women’s teams are now 85-13 in U19/Junior World Cups and own a record seven gold medals in addition to one silver medal and one bronze medal in the 12 previous U19 World Cups.