The path to a FIBA World Cup championship has become clearer for the USA Women’s National Team when, at the end of the Group phase, a draw confirmed that the USA will face Serbia in the quarterfinals on Thursday at noon Sydney time/Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPNU and ESPN+.
The road to the knockout rounds point has not been easy, requiring patience, endurance and adaptability.
At the start of the World Cup a week ago, the team was short three players, A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray. The trio was busy celebrating a WNBA championship as teammates on the Las Vegas Aces. It was the first title for the franchise and fans packed the streets to celebrate and cheer on the champs in a massive parade. The very next day in Sydney, early Wednesday morning in the U.S., the national team took on Belgium to start the World Cup. The team was shorthanded for two games, until Saturday afternoon when the team roster was finally complete for the game against China.
While immediately being thrown into the fire to take on a skilled, experienced team like China may seem like a real challenge, veterans like Wilson were ready for the task, according to coach Cheryl Reeve.
“I think when you have players at that level, and you know A’ja Wilson’s been a part of this, Plum’s been a part of USA Basketball,” said Reeve after practice on Wednesday. “I think WNBA players are so used to playing for a WNBA team, playing overseas, playing for USAB, that they just have a knack for saying, ‘Okay, what are we doing? How am I guarding the ball? What’s that call? And they just grab a hold of it.
“We have to talk to players that don’t know what they’re doing. You’ve got to talk to them. So that’s why we’ve been able to find success.”
The USA is seeking a 11th World Cup championship and the fourth in a row. The five Group phase victories created a team record 27-game winning streak in this event. A quarterfinal victory would make this World Cup the 10th consecutive time the USA has gone undefeated before the semifinal round.
The success of this team can be traced all the way back to training camp in Las Vegas, to the players that didn’t end up making the squad but helped form what the current group has become.
“We had a group in Las Vegas that started the pool,” said Reeve. “They worked incredibly hard. Not all of them had a chance to make the trip to Sydney, but they helped tremendously (to) get this thing off and pointed in the right direction.”
An identity was formed, according to Reeve. And so far throughout the tournament it has been a defensive identity. Even without a full roster, through the first two games the USA was able to hold opponents to 32.4% shooting from the field, force 46 turnovers, score 55 points from those giveaways, and rack up 51 fast-break points. That identity that has been maintained after the trio of Wilson, Plum and Gray arrived.
While playing at less than full strength is not a goal that any team would desire, being able to overcome the challenge fits with the vibe that this group wants to personify. The feeling describes the team perfectly in the eyes of Reeve, who has molded a team built on passion.
“Anything we’ve asked them to do, they have done it,” she said. “They’ve smiled doing it. You know, they may not like how hard you have to work but they embrace the idea that anything easy isn’t worth having.”
Owen Kaelble is a contributor to USAB.com as part of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI.