France fends off Korea 89-58 in FIBA World Cup first-day action

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SANTA CRUZ DE TENERIFE, SPAIN – Korea got off to a quick start, running up a 9-2 lead behind dead-eyed shooting from 5-11 forward Danbi Kim, who went four-for-five from the field in the first five minutes of the second game of the day in the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup at the Quico Cabrera Arena in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, before opposing France finally kicked it into gear.

Though France battled back, the Koreans still held a 23-18 advantage at the end of the first period of play, thanks to 56 percent (9-16) shooting from the floor and a sizzling 67 percent output ((4-6) from behind the arc. Meanwhile, France found all of its success from two-point range, where they netted 64 percent (9-14) of their shot attempts but came up empty (0-6) from the beyond the perimeter. Seven of the Koreans’ nine makes in the opening period came off assists, as they moved the ball with speed and efficiency, coughing up only a single turnover, to three miscues by the French.

Still, France was able to work its way back into the game early in the second frame, clamping down on Kim defensively and closing the gap to a single possession (23-25) in the first three minutes of the period. To the delight of the crowd, France always travels well to these international events, with several hundred fans in the house, while the Korean side of the stands were nearly empty, Les Bleues took their first lead, 27-25, four minutes in on a Sandrine Gruda jumper off an assist from Romane Bernies coming off the bench. Gruda’s emphatic rejection of Jung Eun Kim’s jumper highlighted the second stanza, as Gruda absolutely smothered the shot roughly halfway through the frame. The play underscored the French advantage in height and experience (France came second at the London Olympics in 2012 and are considered a regular podium contender in recent years). In contrast, Korea relied primarily on its athleticism and enthusiasm, as well as the strong outside shooting that has long been the calling card of the top teams from Asia.

By the intermission, France had extended its lead to double digits, 43-31, as it adjusted its perimeter defense, holding Korea’s sharpshooters to a single trey out of four attempts in the second frame. Meanwhile, France found its own stroke from long range, knocking down five long balls, on seven attempts, in the period. France also gave itself plenty of opportunities, controlling the boards to the tune of 24-14, with nine of those rebounds coming off the offensive glass. The Europeans also greatly improved the efficiency of their ball movement: In the opening frame they boasted just five assists to three turnovers, but in the second, they dished out nine more dimes while coughing the ball up only once more.

Less than three minutes into the third period, the French gave themselves an additional advantage, as Korea’s leading scorer, Danbi Kim picked up her third foul. Under FIBA rules, it takes only five personal fouls to sideline a player, but with Kim representing the Asians’ primary hope, the 5-11 forward remained on the floor.
Nonetheless, by the end of three, any doubt as to the outcome seemed to have been erased, with France standing atop a 66-43 lead.

Leeseul Kang infused some life into the all-but-defunct Korean offense with back-to-back three-pointers near the start of the final frame, but France knocked down a steady stream of midrange jumpers and layups to maintain what had swelled to a 27-point advantage. Indeed, by this point, the media tribune had all but emptied, but the French fans were not only clapping and cheering, but also singing. Perhaps the first quarter outburst by Korea had shaken some nerves, because despite their robust lead, the French spectators continued to boo loudly at every call that went the other way.

Give credit to Korea’s Han Byul Kim for her never-quit spirit, wrestling two French players to come up with a rebound after Helena Ciak had missed two back-to-back bunnies low in the paint.

Despite that effort, head coach Moonkyu Lee blamed the 89-58 loss on two factors: the superior height of the French players and a lack of effort on the part of his own players. “We could have won this game,” he said through a translator. “We could have beat them, but I think we beat ourselves.”

Coach Valerie Garnier attributed the French turnaround to three factors: increased intensity in the defense, especially in contesting Korea’s perimeter shots; rebounding; and an up-tempo pace. Indeed, French dominance of the boards (50-24) resulted in a lopsided possession game, with France taking 73 shots on goal, netting 39 of them to finish with 53-percent field-goal shooting, as compared to just 59 shot attempts by Korea, of which only 21 (36 percent) found their mark. “This is our strength,” Garnier said of the strategy.

Standouts:  Marine Johannes led all scorers with 19 points on 58-percent (7/12) shooting from the field, including two-of-three from beyond the arc. “I missed my first shot,” but after that began to feel more comfortable with her shooting, she said through a translator in response to a question about the improved French performance from beyond the arc as the game progressed. Still, France finished at just 33 percent (6/18) from the perimeter, finding most of their success from two-point range, where they netted a healthy 60 percent (33/55) of their attempts.

Also putting up double-digits for France were veterans Endene Miyem and Sandrine Gruda, who together with newcomer Alexia Chartereau contributed 12 points apiece. Helene Ciak just missed a double double, pulling down a game-high 10 rebounds to go with nine points. Gruda pulled down eight boards, while Miyem and Olivia Epoupa contributed six rebounds apiece.

Ji Su Park led the way for Korea with 15 points to go with a team-high eight rebounds, while Leeseul Kang contributed 14 on a highly efficient 71 percent (5/7) from the field and Danbi Kim finished with 13, all but two of which came in the opening frame. In what was viewed as a further expression of disappointment with his team, Coach Lee excluded all of his leading scorers from the post-game press conference, instead bringing bench guard Yung Hui Lim (9 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 2 turnovers) before the media.

On the Other Side of the Bracket

Australia 86, Nigeria 68.  Across town, Australia rolled to an 86-68 victory over Nigeria, despite some wobbles in the third quarter, thanks to putting up an early lead (24-17 in the first quarter) and a strong finish (23-14 in the fourth frame). Liz Cambage led the way with a stat line that burst at the seams: 34 points on 63.6 percent (14/22) field-goal shooting, to which she added 12 rebounds, two assists and four blocked shots in less than 27 minutes on the floor. No other Aussie finished in double figures, but then again, they didn’t really have to.

Evelyn Akhator carried the water offensively for Nigeria with 21 points to go with five rebounds. Ezinne Josephine Kalu chipped in with 15 points, but on a paltry 35.7 percent (5/14) from the field, and worsened the picture with a game-high seven turnovers.

Turkey 63, Argentina 37.  In the second game of the day in La Laguna, Turkey humbled Argentina, 63-37, behind a well-balanced scoring effort led by 13 points from Tilbe Senyurek, who added 8 rebounds, and 12 points from Bahar Caglar, who also pulled down six boards.

Macarena Rosset led the Argentines in defeat with 12 points to go with five rebounds and Andrea Boquete chipped in 10 points and four boards.

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