USA U19 Women Will Face Tough Competition, Professionals This Summer
First step to competing against young, experienced international players begins with team trials May 14-16 in Denver
The FIBA U19 World Cup is one of the most difficult competitions on USA Basketball’s calendar, and this year likely will be no exception.
In the first three editions of the event, which was then known as the FIBA Junior World Championship, the USA teams, each of which featured future Olympians, finished no better than fifth place.
In 1997, the Americans broke into the medal standings in style – by defeating Australia in overtime in the gold medal game. From then on, the U.S. collected a medal at each competition, including seven gold medals (six in a row from 2005-2015), one silver medal in 2017 and one bronze medal in 2001.
This weekend in Denver, 25 of the nation’s top 19-and-under athletes will take part in the 2021 USA Basketball Women’s U19 World Cup Team trials. One participant, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, knows firsthand how tough the competition can be.
Clark and USA head coach Cori Close (UCLA), who was an assistant coach in 2019, came close to not returning with the gold, but ultimately helped the USA claim a four-point overtime victory against Australia, featuring 2021 No. 11 WNBA Draft pick Shyla Heal, for the gold medal.
In 2017, the last time the USA lost at the U19s, the Americans were stopped by Russia and tournament MVP Maria Vadeeva in the gold medal game. By 2017, the 2021 EuroLeague champion Vadeeva already had been competing professionally for four years, including playing alongside the USA’s Nneka Ogwumike for Dynamo Kursk the previous season.
“When you look back to the years when it’s been the hardest for us, you can count some WNBA-level caliber athletes on the other teams,” said Jennifer Rizzotti, chair of the USA Basketball Women’s Junior National Team Committee and assistant coach for this summer’s Olympic team. “Damaris Dantas won the MVP in 2011. We won the gold medal, and yet she was the MVP because that’s how good of a player she was at 19. So, whenever you look at these other teams, they have athletes who will eventually be playing professionally in the United States, and the better talent they have, the harder it is that year for us to win.”
So, while the USA owns the most medals of any country in the history of the U19 World Cup, it hasn’t always been an easy tournament to win.
While the American side has featured 16 athletes who have advanced to compete in the Olympics and/or FIBA World Cup, including future WNBA MVPs such as Tamika Catchings, Lisa Leslie, Maya Moore, Ogwumike, Breanna Stewart, Diana Taurasi and A’ja Wilson, young stars from other countries also have debuted their talents on the world stage at the U19s.
In fact, three-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson was on the Australia U19 squad that fell to the USA and Catchings in the 1997 gold medal game.
In 2011, Rizzotti was head coach for the USA U19 World Cup Team that listed a 16-year-old Stewart on the roster and captured the gold medal with a 6-1 record after losing to Canada in the second round.
Among the future international stars that team went up against were Brazil’s Dantas, a two-time Olympian who plays for the WNBA Minnesota Lynx; Spain’s Astou Ndour, a 2016 Olympic silver medalist and 2018 World Cup bronze medalist who played last season for the WNBA Dallas Wings; 2016 Olympian Rui Machida from Japan; and Canada’s twin towers, Katherine and Michell Plouffe, 6-foot-3 centers who teamed up at the 2016 Olympics and who combined for 36 points against the USA in 2011.
“One of the biggest differences at this age level is that a lot of our opponents have been playing on professional teams at 17, 18, 19 years old,” added Rizzotti, who recently was named president of the WNBA Connecticut Sun. “And our team is still in high school or just one year into college with zero professional experience. So, even if they have international experience, they haven’t played against the physicalness of professional athletes before. That’s primarily why the U19s is such a difficult age group to compete in.”
Rizzotti and the rest of the USA Basketball committee, which includes 2008 Olympic gold medalist Kara Lawson, head coach at Duke, as well as Temple head coach Tonya Cardoza and North Carolina State head coach Wes Moore, will be keeping a close watch over the trials participants this weekend. It’s their job to put together the best 12-member team, or select top finalists, to put Close and her assistant coaches, South Dakota State’s Aaron Johnston and Georgia’s Joni Taylor, in the best position to claim gold.
“We certainly think about trying to give the coaches a very balanced, diverse and deep team so they have a lot of options,” Rizzotti stated. “Some of the athletes will be playing internationally for the first time and fortunately some of them already have some international experience. So, you want to make sure the coaching staff has a little bit of both --that they have some up-and-comers, future Olympians for the United States and kids who have experience. You also want to have really good players at every position, so that Cori Close has the flexibility to try different lineups and go deep into her bench, to try to balance out the experience levels of some of these international teams.”
While past USA U19 World Cup squads have enjoyed enviable success, event history has shown that the road to gold is not easy. But, with the slate of athletes involved in trials, combined with a stellar coaching staff, USA Basketball hopes there is a ninth FIBA U19 World Cup gold medal in its future in 2021.
Featuring U19 teams from 16 nations, the 2021 FIBA U19 World Cup is scheduled to be held Aug. 7-15 in Debrecen, Hungary. In addition to the USA and host Hungary, teams that will take part in this summer’s U19 World Cup include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Italy, Japan, Mali, Russia, South Korea and Spain.
The USA will open play against Italy on Aug. 7, followed by Australia on Aug. 8 and cap preliminary play against Egypt on Aug. 10.
Reigning FIBA U19 World Cup gold medalist, USA women’s teams have won eight gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal while compiling an 86-13 overall record in U19 World Cup play since the event was launched in 1985. Even more impressive, the USA has posted a 62-3 record and won seven of the past eight U19 golds since 2005.