Shutdown Defense in the Second Half Propels U.S. Women Over Japan
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After scoring 30 points in the first quarter, Japan had 39 the rest of the game.
By looking at the players on the court, it was obvious where the U.S. Olympic Women ’s Basketball Team (2-0) held a significant edge over Japan (1-1): height.
What was not so obvious in the team’s preliminary-round matchup on Friday was that the home team didn’t have the emotional support of an arena filled with screaming fans during the Tokyo Olympics.
Who knows how much of a difference that would have made, but the top-ranked U.S. survived a tenacious effort by Japan for an 86-69 victory at the Saitama Super Arena.
“Japan is a tough team to play against,” USA coach Dawn Staley said. "After the first quarter I thought we did a great job disrupting them and not allowing them to take and make as many 3-point shots uncontested. We just forced them to put the ball on the floor and then our bigs got involved. I was happy that we locked down and got that done. I’m happy for our team because we are slowly coming together and playing the style of play we need to play to not only get better, but just compete and to get out of pool play because we’ve got a tough pool."
A’ja Wilson notched her second double-double in as many Olympic games with 20 points and 10 rebounds, while Breanna Stewart had 15 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Brittney Griner also had 15 points, while Jewell Loyd had 12 and Diana Taurasi finished with 11 points.
Japan, which featured backcourt quickness and a patient offense quarterbacked by Rui Machida, was led by Ezinne Kalu’s 16 points and six rebounds. Japan, in its fifth Olympic appearance, upset fifth-ranked France 74-70 in its opener.
Another upset seemed possible in the first quarter as Japan went 6-for-10 on 3-point attempts and had the USA on its heels defensively. The Americans clamped down the rest of the game, with Japan hitting only 4-of-28 from deep the rest of the way. After scoring 30 points in the first quarter, Japan had 39 for the rest of the game.
“Our post players having to guard the 3-point line,” Staley said on the challenges the USA had defensively. “They’re so used to getting back in transition, it takes them a while to adjust to stopping at the 3-point line (to pick up their player).”
Japan actually owns one of the few wins against the U.S. in Olympic competition, having earned an 84-71 win in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. The Americans have lost just three of 71 Olympic games, including two in Montreal. But Japan showed the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world isn’t quite as big as it once was.
“I feel like every time we go into the game, we know that we’re going to get another country’s best shot,” said the 6-foot-9 Griner, who was double-, triple- and even quadruple-teamed at times. “Like Sue (Bird) said, it might seem like everybody thought we just walked out and got buckets and had this huge margin (in the past). We get everybody’s best shot — it’s just good basketball going on.”
The U.S. had a distinct size advantage, with an average height of 6-foot-1.5 inches to Japan’s 5-foot-9 inches. The disparity was even more stark in the starting lineups, with the American starters averaging 5 inches taller.
While it took until the third quarter to create separation from Japan, the U.S. players were optimistic about their progress.
“Just communication,” Loyd said of the biggest improvement. “One, we’re getting used to the ball (which is different from the WNBA), and then two, just working on making sure we’re just calling for each other (on defense) and understanding personnel a little bit better and kind of taking a breath. I think we played a little fast in other games, so just trying to get a rhythm for us and take it slow and play our speed.”
Both teams came out shooting very well and set a high-scoring pace in the first quarter. The USA scored the first seven points of the game and led 17-9, but Japan stayed in the game with its early 3-point shooting and, surprisingly, by outscoring the Americans in the paint 12-6. Saori Miyazaki’s 3-pointer gave Japan a 30-28 lead after the first 10 minutes.
In the second quarter, the pace slowed considerably while the shooting remained efficient. It was 36-36 with 5:15 left in the half when the USA rattled off the next seven points for a 43-36 edge. That allowed the U.S. to hang on for a 49-40 halftime lead.
Japan held the USA without a basket for 4:22 of the third quarter and went on a 9-1 run to pull within 55-51, snapped by Wilson’s three-point play with 4:13 left. Wilson had 10 points in the third as the U.S. took a 65-53 lead into the final quarter.
Bird’s first basket of the Tokyo Olympics came on a 3-pointer with 2:55 left to give the U.S. an 84-64 lead that essentially sealed the result.
With six new Olympians on the 12-player roster, the U.S. still hasn’t hit its full stride. After 25 turnovers in the opening win over Nigeria, the Americans had 17 more against Japan.
“I feel like we’ve been telling you guys (media) for years that we’re making it look easy, and it’s something that is really hard,” Bird said. “And now I think what you're seeing is, it is hard and it doesn't always work out. But we’ve made it look easy for a really long time. And that's not to say that we're not headed in the right direction. I think with each practice, with each game we’re getting a little more comfortable.”
By improving to 2-0 in Group B, the Americans all but clinched a spot in the quarterfinals in pursuit of a seventh-straight gold medal. The USA will play France, which took on Nigeria on Friday, to wrap up Group B play Monday at 12:40 a.m. EDT (USA Network).
“France is a team that I know all of us respect,” said Stewart. “We know how good they are and can be. They can shoot lights out, they have dominant post players, and now (with) Gabby Williams bringing that versatility it's gonna be a tough game. And it's going to be physical, it's going to be a grind. But for us, I think the most important thing is to get that win and to carry that into the quarterfinals.”