China tops Latvia 64-61 in first game of 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup

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SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, SPAIN – FIBA has rebranded its quadrennial Women’s World Basketball Championship as the “Women’s Basketball World Cup” for the first time this year, with competition kicking off at 11 o’clock this morning in Quico Cabrera Arena in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, where a well-supported Latvia faced China. (All times local.) A few kilometers away, in San Cristobal de Laguna, Australia got its campaign for a return to the podium underway, taking on Nigeria at the Santiago Martin Arena.

A healthy crowd several hundred strong, armed with flags and drums, made the journey of roughly 4,460 kilometers (approximately 2,770 miles) from Riga and its surrounds to the Canary Islands, just off the coast of North Africa, to cheer on their team. Though significantly outsized by the towering Chinese, Team Latvia did not disappoint, trailing, by only a point or two through much of the early going. Some seven minutes in, China pulled out to a 16-6 lead, as Latvian shooting suffered under increased defensive pressure from China, and Latvian called for its first time out.

To that point, the game had been a study in contrasting styles, as Latvia carefully worked the ball around the perimeter, most often settling for long jumpers, as China dominated the paint in the early going, barely allowing Latvia to get off a shot inside, but distributed its offense more evenly between inside and midrange. Out of the break, Latvia stepped up the intensity of its own defense but still struggled to knock down points, as the first period closed with China on top, 17-10.

Latvia seized momentum early in the second frame, closing the gap to 16-18 in the first two minutes of play. An unforced Latvian turnover and a pair of fouls, one of them questionable, put the steam back in the Chinese sails midway through the quarter, but Latvia stuck close. A three-pointer by Anete Steinberga, on an assist from Kristine Vitola, closed the gap to a single point, 28-29, in the final minute of the half, and she had all day to get her bearings, as none of the Chinese defenders stepped out to challenge the shot.

Seconds later, the buzzer sounded with China still up by one, 31-30, after Jiacen Liu’s attempt to widen the margin rattled in and out of the hoop.

Latvia shot a meager 21 percent (4-19) from the field in the first quarter, but improved to 47 percent (8-17) in the second frame. They netted none of their seven three-point attempts in the opening period, but exercised better shot selection in the second, landing three of their six long-ball attempts in the latter period. That improved three-point shooting was critical in keeping the Latvians within reach, as their margins from inside the perimeter, consisting primarily of midrange jumpers, were nearly as much off the mark in the second quarter (5-11) as they had been in the first (4-12). Latvia fared much better when they began to drive the ball inside: Though fewer than half (18) of their 39 shots for the half were taken from inside the paint, they made nine of them, for a 60 percent success rate inside the paint.

China, too, achieved most of its success from the inside the perimeter, shooting 44 percent (7-16) in the opening quarter, and 39 percent (11-28) for the half from two-point range. With center Han Xu checking in at 6 feet, nine inches, and plenty of help from colleagues standing 6-3 or better, it is surprising they did not camp out in the lane all morning, especially as they shot the ball far better (47 percent, or 8-17) when they took the ball inside. Nonetheless, while the Chinese were parsimonious from behind the arc, shooting just two-for-five from that range for the half, a pair of three-pointers, one by Yang Liwei and the other by Li Meng were the difference in maintaining the Chinese lead.

Also noteworthy, despite the Chinese height advantage, Latvia managed to eke out a 22-21 advantage on the boards for the half, proving once again the adage that rebounding is as much about “want to” as anything else.

Latvia took its first lead of the game in the second minute of the third period, pulling ahead 32-31 on a pair of free throws by Elina Dikaioulaku, and stretching the lead to 34-31 seconds later on a jumper by Gunta Basko.

China regained its advantage (40-38) six minutes in as Mengran Sun netted a layup. Seconds later Xu Han netted a jumper, and then Sijing Huang blocked Kitija Laksa’s shot with Siyu Wang driving the lane for another layup, to make the score 44-38, China, and Latvia was forced to take time to talk things over.

With 11 seconds to go in the quarter, Vitola knotted the score at 44 on a layup that was the product of a great defensive play in which she had managed to block Jiacen Liu’s shot at the other end, and the third frame finished on that note.

China drew first blood with a Ting Shao layup in the final stanza, but Latvia quickly answered with a three-pointer by Dikaioulaku, quickly followed by a jumper and one of a pair of charity shots by Aija Putnina to make it 49-46. From there, the two sides exchanged blow-for-blow for much of the final frame. Halfway through the period, the score stood tied at 51 apiece on a free throw (one of the pair) by Chinese center Han.

Both sides had maintained an intense pace throughout the game and fatigue was beginning to show itself in personal fouls and ball handling errors. The officials appear to have missed a bit of goal tending by Han, who swept Pulvere’s layup attempt off the top of the iron – perhaps no one looks for such violations in the women’s game. Coupled with a pair of free throws seconds earlier by Wang, the play left China with a 56-53 edge as the game neared its final three minutes.

Putnina narrowed the gap to one (56-55) on a pair from the charity stripe, but Han worked the ball inside for a layup to make it a three-point game. Sun had the opportunity to widen the margin for China, but missed both of her shots from the charity stripe. A long two by Dikaioulaku, shooting from just inside the arc, narrowed things once again, but the otherwise sensational Anete Steinberga missed an opportunity at the foul line, and Shao Ting answered with a layup to put China up 62-60.

As the clock wound down to the final minute, Dikaioulaku knocked down one of a pair from the stripe, and when China missed at the other end, Latvia held for what it hoped would be the final shot. However, Kitija Laksa lost the handle on the ball and the delay in regaining control forced an off-balance shot that narrowly missed the mark.

Latvia was forced to foul to stop the clock, and Liwei Yang rose to the occasion at the line. Chinese pressure caused Pulvere to fumble the Latvian inbounds play, and China took the first game of the tournament, 64-61.

Standouts: Ting Shao led the way for China with 15 points on 56 percent shooting from the field. She had plenty of help from teammates Liwei Yang (10 points on 50-percent field-goal shooting) and Siyu Wang (10 points), the latter of whom knocked down everything she put up with the exception of one of a pair from the free-throw line. Meanwhile, Chinese center Xu Han pulled down 10 rebounds, to go with eight points, while Mengran Sun grabbed eight boards and also netted eight points.

For Latvia, Anete Steinberga netted a game-high 16 points, on 50-percent field-goal shooting, making it a double-double with 11 rebounds, including four on the offensive glass. Elina Dikaioulaku contributed 14 points, also on 50 percent from the field, and pulled down nine rebounds. Team rebounding was impressive for the out-sized Latvians, with Aija Putnina hauling in nine rebounds to offset a difficult shooting day, while Kristine Vitola chipped in eight rebounds and added eight points to a solid team effort. Ieva Pulvere also struggled to knock down shots but dished out five assists for a game high.

Other action: France took the floor against Korea in the day’s second game at Quico Cabrera, while the U.S. headlined the evening session against Senegal. Puerto Rico returned to World Championship play after a long hiatus, taking on World Cup debutante Belgium in the final game on this side of the bracket.

On the other side of the island, at Santiago Martin Arena in nearby San Cristobal de Laguna, Australia opened against Nigeria followed by Turkey versus Argentina. The evening session featured Greece versus Canada followed by Japan versus host-country Spain.

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