USA U19 Women into Gold Medal Game After 75-42 Semifinal Win Over Host Hungary
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NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the Australia vs. Mali semifinal contest. The quotes remain as they were immediately following the USA's semifinal contest.
The USA Women’s U19 World Cup Team (6-0) opened up a 20-point halftime lead and ran away with a 75-42 semifinal victory over host Hungary (4-1) on Saturday evening in Debrecen, Hungary. The win advanced the USA to a ninth-straight FIBA U19 World Cup for Women gold medal game, a streak that dates to 2005.
Sonia Citron (The Ursuline School/Scarsdale, N.Y.) scored a game-high 17 points and Caitlin Clark (Iowa/West Des Moines, Iowa), who was 4-of-7 from 3-point, and Diamond Johnson (NC State/Philadelphia, Pa.) closed out with 14 points apiece. Lauren Betts (Grandview H.S./Centennial, Colo.) and Sania Feagin (Forest Park H.S./Ellenwood, Ga.) combined for 23 of the USA’s 56 rebounds.
“I could not have gotten any of the points I had without my teammates,” said Citron. “We have such a selfless team; we’re always moving the ball around. They were able to find me, and I was getting easy, lucky layups.
“Our bigs have been doing so great,” Citron added. “I don’t think they get the credit they deserve. Between Lauren Betts, Lauren Ware, Amari (DeBerry), Jersey (Wolfenbarger), Sania (Feagin), all of our bigs do such a great job rebounding, screening, all the little things that you might not see in the stat sheets. Without them, we would not be able to do what we do.”
The day’s second semifinal saw Australia (5-1) pull away to earn a 62-50 victory over Mali (4-2), setting up a rematch of the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup gold medal game, won by the USA in overtime. The Aug. 15 gold medal game will stream live Aug. 15 on ESPN+ at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Hungary and Mali will square off in the bronze medal game, and both nations are in the hunt for a first U19 medal of any color.
“We are where we wanted to be from day 1,” said USA head coach Cori Close (UCLA). “No matter who we face, we’ll be ready. This team really wants to compete, they’re excited about the opportunity and have sacrificed a lot. They want to finish it out with a gold medal.”
As for the USA’s semifinal contest, Close added: “We definitely could have cleaned things up from an offensive perspective, but I was proud that our defense was our anchor.”
Citron connected on an and-one for the game’s first points and the Americans never trailed. With the score knotted at 5-all with 5:55 on the first-quarter clock, the USA closed the quarter on an 8-0 spurt to take a 13-5 lead after the first frame.
The U.S. expanded its lead into double digits and was ahead 27-15 with about four minutes to play before halftime when another quarter-ending 8-0 run sent the U.S. to the locker room with a 20-point, 35-15 advantage. The final four points came from Citron, who scored 11 points by the midway mark.
“Since our offense wasn’t flowing, defense wins games,” said Feagin on her team’s first-half play. “So, we played defense as a team and came out at the half with that big lead.”
Neither team shot well in the first half, with the USA connecting on just 29.5% (13-44 FGs), while its defense held Hungary to an ice-cold 17.7% (6-34 FGs) from the floor.
“Hungary doubled the post and crowded anything we got near the basket, and we just didn’t deliver on some of those,” said Close about Hungary’s first-half defense. “They were extremely physical, and the refs let it go on both sides, so I didn’t think it was unfair. We just didn’t adjust very well. You just have to anchor down on defense and not let the frustrations on offense effect your defense, and I was really proud of how they managed that. We held them to 15 points in the first half and still scored 35.”
Clark scored 11 points in the third quarter, which saw the U.S. improve its shooting in the stanza to 50% (10-20 FGs) as the red, white and blue outscored the hosts 28-17 to take an overwhelming 63-32 advantage into the final stanza.
“We ran a few sets designed to get me open,” said Clark. “Our point guards did a really good job looking for me off those screens and our posts set some really good screens to get me open.”
“I tried to challenge them to create easier shots for each other and you’re going to make more when you do that, when you get in a rhythm,” stated Close. “When Caitlin got hot in the second half, I told the team that that wasn’t just Caitlin, that was our team. Our team setting good screens, our team moving the ball, our team finding her. And then, obviously, Caitlin doing a good job of knocking those shots down.”
With the game well in hand, the USA eased up in the fourth quarter and closed out with the 33-point win.
Citron, who connected on 8-of-12 from the field, added eight rebounds, two assists and two steals. In addition to a game-high 12 rebounds, Betts chipped in four points and had three blocked shots. Feagin, who had 11 boards, added six points and three assists.
The U.S. upped its shooting percentage in the second half, in which it made 53.6% (15-28 FGs) of its field goal attempts to close out the game at 38.9% (28-72 FGs), while Hungary finished the night shooting 25.8% (16-62 FGs) from the field.
Outrebounding Hungary 56-33, including 21-11 on the offensive glass, the USA earned 27 points off of 21 Hungarian turnovers. In all, the USA outscored Hungary 13-0 fast break points, 20-8 in second chance points and 34-8 points in the paint.
“It was very important to get a big lead early,” added Feagin about playing in front of a raucous Hungarian crowd. “That was the most fans we’ve seen in the gym since we’ve been here. We knew we couldn’t let the fans get in our head. Let them talk, let them scream, we just had to talk louder so we can play the game that we know how to play.”
Two years ago, the USA defeated Australia 74-70 in overtime for the gold medal. At 17, Clark was one of the youngest members of that team and Close was an assistant coach.
“No matter who we face, it’s going to be a tough game,” stated Clark. “If you look back at the last gold medal game, we honestly probably shouldn’t have won. We ended up having a miracle in the end that saved us a little. But, no matter who we see, we’ll be ready. The biggest thing that I’ve been telling the team is to not take anybody for granted. We’re going to prepare for whoever it is. It’s fun to be back here and if we just play our game, we’ll be perfectly fine.”
“It helps to have Caitlin on the team because she was also there. At the very beginning of camp, we showed this team clips of that gold medal game and showed them how physical it was. And as soon as we beat Australia in pool play, Caitlin told this team that it doesn’t mean anything if we meet them again in the medal rounds.”
Assisting Close and the USA U19 World Cup Team are collegiate head coaches Aaron “AJ” Johnston (South Dakota State) and Joni Taylor (Georgia).
In the 5-8 place semifinal games, Czech Republic (4-2) edged Spain (3-3) 66-63 and Canada (3-3) won 66-58 over Russia (4-2); in 9-12 place semifinal games, Japan (3-3) cruised past Italy (2-4) 88-51 and will take on the winner of the France (4-1) versus Egypt (1-4) contest; and in the 13-16 place semifinal contests, Taiwan (1-5) earned its first win after defeating Brazil (0-6) 86-70 and South Korea (2-4) defeated Argentina (1-5) 57-48.
The reigning FIBA U19 World Cup gold medalist, since 2005, the USA U19 women have won seven of the past eight U19 gold medals. In all, USA women’s U19 teams have won eight gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal while compiling an 92-13 overall record in U19 World Cup play since the event was launched in 1985. Even more impressive, the USA has posted a 68-3 record and won seven of the past eight U19 golds since 2005.
Australia has claimed one gold, two silvers and three bronze medals in FIBA U19 World Cup play.