It took nearly all 40 minutes for the 2020 USA Basketball Women’s National Team (3-0, 17-1) to earn its 76-71 victory over Nigeria (1-2) in the final game at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament on Sunday night in Belgrade, Serbia.
With completion of the 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, the 12-team field for the 2020 Olympic women’s basketball tournament is now known. In addition to Japan (host) and the USA (2018 FIBA World Cup gold medalists), Canada, China, France and Nigeria secured berths after two games of play in the three-game series. Ten nations remained in the mix ahead of today’s games and the six that punched their tickets to Tokyo on Sunday were: Australia, Belgium, Puerto Rico, Serbia, South Korea and Spain. The draw to determine the 2020 Olympic preliminary round groups will be held March 21.
In Sunday’s win, a game in which the United States trailed 57-50 heading into the final quarter, Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury/Baylor) led the USA offense with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field. Chelsea Gray (Los Angeles Sparks/Duke) added 12 points and a game-high seven assists, Nneka Ogwumike (Los Angeles Sparks/Stanford) added 11 points and Katie Lou Samuelson (Chicago Sky/Connecticut) tossed in 10 points, including a pair of critical fourth quarter 3-pointers.
“We talked about this before the game,” said USA co-coach Cheryl Reeve (Minnesota Lynx). “When we were in Tenerife (at the 2018 FIBA World Cup) and played this team, we were down 10 in the first quarter, so we expected a tough game and that’s what we got.”
“It was a really good game,” said Griner. “We knew that Nigeria was going to come out and give us a good game. In Spain (at the 2018 FIBA World Cup), it was the same thing. They got out a little bit more than what we wanted so we knew we were going to have to fight back. This game is going to help propel us going towards Tokyo. Seeing this, being down, fighting back, taking one possession at a time, I was just ready for those last three minutes to wind down.”
Ogwumike was voted MVP of the qualifying tournament, and joining her on the five-member All-Tournament team was A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces/South Carolina). Rounding the all-tourney squad were Ana Dabovic of Serbia, Leia Dongue of Mozambique and Eziinne Kalu of Nigeria.
“I was surprised,” exclaimed Ogwumike on her MVP award. “But, I didn’t do it by myself. I’m just really grateful to be here again with USA Basketball and have the opportunity to play.”
The USA trailed 57-50 headed into the final quarter but outscored Nigeria 26-14 to take the game 76-71.
Down 63-55 with 7:22 to play, the USA mounted a furious comeback, and capped by two free throws from Samuelson, posted a 15-5 scoring run over five minutes to pull ahead 70-68.
“You get to a point where you’re searching for someone who will do something simple like make a shot,” said Reeve. “Dan Hughes, shout out to Dan, that was his call (subbing Samuelson in). He said, ‘let’s do it’ and obviously it turned out to be the difference in the game. She had a way about her that was calm. Nigeria creates a lot of chaos and speeds you up and she didn’t get sped up. She was helpful in a lot of ways. Obviously the shot-making being the biggest thing.”
Tied at 70, Wilson scored off a feed from Sue Bird (Seattle Storm/Connecticut) with 1:06 to play to push the red, white and blue ahead 72-70. Nigeria’s Atonye Nyingifaegia made one of two free throws to close the U.S. lead to one, 71-70, with 54 second to go, but Griner scored off an assist from Gray to cushion the USA lead to 74-71 with 41.4 seconds remaining.
Nigeria missed two would-be game-tying 3-point shots in the closing seconds, and the USA sealed the win with two free throws from Gray with 11 seconds to play.
“This game kind of symbolized this journey that we want to go through, the journey that we’re going to experience,” said Ogwumike. “We’re getting a lot of experience, getting a lot of people playing, getting great competition, and preparing for Tokyo. I’m really, really excited about the competition. I’m glad we were able to get some good games in, get the chemistry going. Coach Reeve and coach Hughes and VJ (Vickie Johnson) really prepared us well. We feel good now going into these last few segments.”
The USA ran to a 9-2 lead to open the game, but Nigeria battled back and at the conclusion of the first quarter Nigeria held a 21-20 lead.
It was a dismal second quarter for the USA that almost did the Americans in. Outscored by Nigeria 19-6 in quarter two, Nigeria took a 40-26 lead to the locker room at halftime.
Struggling to find the bottom of the net in the second quarter, the USA made just 1-of-16 shots from the field during that span, while Nigeria made 9-of-15 attempts. Recording 13 turnovers in the first half, the Americans were outrebounded by a 25-15 margin, which included Nigeria enjoying a 10-5 advantage on the offensive glass.
“Their physicality sort of surprises you,” said Reeve when talking about halftime adjustments. “As much as you talk about it, try to prepare for it, it’s different when you actually face it. So, we just had to adjust to that and simplify what we were doing offensively. In the second half we got ourselves into an offense that produced more paint touches. The way that they play on the inside, they fight around the post, and we got Brittney and Syl some easy catches.”
The third quarter saw the USA offense come to life, but every USA push was met by a push from Nigeria as well. A traditional three-point play from Ogwumike had the USA within five, 48-43, with 2:21 left in the third quarter, But Nigeria responded by outscoring the U.S. 9-7 in the final minutes to take a 57-50 lead into the fourth quarter.
The USA ended the night shooting 41.3 percent, compared to Nigeria hitting 40.9 percent of its shots. While Nigeria outrebounded the USA 43-36, the USA was fueled to the win by its bench, which outscored Nigeria’s bench 48-15.
Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm/Connecticut) did not play due to a leg contusion.
In other games today, Serbia (2-1) defeated Mozambique (3-0) 76-48, China (3-0) sailed past South Korea (1-2) 100-60 and Spain (2-1) held off Great Britain (0-3) 79-69 in Belgrade; Australia (2-1) eliminated Brazil (0-3) 86-72 and France (3-0) remained perfect with a 89-51 win over Puerto Rico (1-2) in Bourges, France; and in Ostend, Belgium, Belgium (2-1) downed Sweden (0-3) 61-53 and Canada (3-0) defeated Japan (1-2) 70-68.
The 2019-20 USA National Team has a combined 17-1 record, which includes its three victories in Serbia, a 6-0 mark and gold medal at the FIBA AmeriCup in Puerto Rico, a 3-0 record at the FIBA Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Argentina and a 5-1 slate in exhibition games against college teams.