Spain slips by Belgium to win bronze at 2018 FIBA World Championship

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SAN CRISTOBAL DE LA LAGUNA, TENERIFE, SPAIN – The Spanish hosts earned the bronze medal for the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup on Sunday evening, with a hard-fought 67-60 victory over Belgium, to the delight of a sold-out crowd at the Pabellon Santiago Martin in San Cristobal de La Laguna in Tenerife.

A fan chose to start the proceedings by blasting away on his vuvuzela from his seat high in the stands throughout much of the Belgian national anthem. Though the overwhelmingly pro-Spanish crowd, who have been nothing but warm and welcoming over the course of the tournament, tried to hush him and whistle him down, he would not be quieted until an usher finally reached him in the nosebleeds.

If his goal was to provoke the Belgian players, he most assuredly achieved it – several Belgians seemed visibly upset at the insult and were pointing in his direction while waiting for the Spanish anthem to play. They took their frustrations out on the floor by starting out on a 6-0 run, which went on until Marta Xargay nailed down a three-pointer on an assist from Laia Palau to finally get Spain underway at the 7:37 mark. By four minutes in, Belgium was up, 10-3, and Spain called time out.

The break did little to help the situation as Belgium continued to roll as Kim Mestdagh netted a three-pointer on an assist from Ann Wauters. Wauters dropped in a layup on an assist from Julie Allemand to give Belgium a 15-5 lead with 3:19 to go in the opening quarter.

A turnover finally got Spain back into the action as Alba Torrens picked off a bad pass by Julie Vanloo and took it coast to coast for a layup. Anna Cruz followed that up with a trey on an assist from Laura Gil, to narrow Belgium’s lead to three (15-12), and Astou Ndour followed that up with her own triple to equalize the score at 15 by the end of the quarter.

Both sides saw team-wide participation in the offensive effort, as Belgium shot 47 percent (7/15) from the floor. Spain shot more poorly, netting just six of its 16 (38 percent) of its field-goal attempts, but made up the difference by knocking down three-of-its-five three-point shots.

Spain turned up the heat as the second quarter got underway, stepping up both its rebounding and its defense. Spain’s first possession of the period was excruciating, as the crowd witnessed five shots in a row come up empty on the same possession. But seconds later, an Allemand turnover led to a hook shot by Astou Ndour, putting the lead in Spanish hands just one minute into the frame. The bucket capped a 12-0 run for Spain that bridged the two quarters.

Jana Raman tied tings up a minute later, and the two sides traded buckets and the lead over the next three minutes.

Spain took a 23-21 lead on a Ndour jumper just inside the halfway point, and Xargay expanded the lead to four (25-21) less than a minute later thanks to an offensive rebound by Laura Nicholls. Spain by now was getting third-and-fourth chance points thanks to its offensive rebounding, as well as its quick hands and ability to exploit Belgian turnovers. A Xargay trey, the fourth shot on that particular Spanish possession and a jumper from Ouvina bracketed a deuce from Mestdagh to set the score at 30-23, Spain, heading into the final minute of first-half play.

Xargay added two points more from the foul line, but Mestdagh repeated the accomplishment at the opposite end of the floor.  Belgium held for the final shot of the half, but Palau blocked Allemand’s drive for a layup. Spain was unable to convert in the final three seconds, and the teams headed to their locker rooms with Spain still holding a five-point lead, 32-27.

Scantily costumed merengue dancers, joined by a drum corps in Carnival garb, performed at the intermission as they have several times over the course of the event. Merengue is a style of dance native to the Canary Islands, and adds a bit of culture and festivity to the proceedings. Credit to FIBA and the local organizers for the entertainment at halftime and during breaks in play; those watching from home on TV may not get to see much, if any of it but it has created a great atmosphere here in the arena. Entertainment has run the gamut from the conventional – trampoline dunk teams and hip-hop crews – to the less often seen (at least on a basketball court) ballet and interpretive dance. WNBA teams might do well to consider some international additions to the fan experience. To cite just one example, I doubt any spectator could spirit a drum into Staples Center or Madison Garden, but they do it in FIBA play regularly, and it does much to enliven the atmosphere and fire up the teams. On the other hand, FIBA requires the removal of caps from the water bottles, which might help to prevent them from being turned into projectiles by frustrated fans if thrown from the stands. But it applies the rules universally, and a tall open water bottle is a dangerous object at a media table or photographer’s bench filled with laptops, wires and electronic equipment, as several of my colleagues here have learned to their dismay.

Belgium was slow getting started out of the locker room, as Linskens missed a bunny, and Delaere saw her jumper blocked by Ndour. Spain, in contrast, came out on fire, as Ouvina’s jump shot got Spain on the board right away. Xargay stripped Meesseman, but couldn’t make anything out of it when she was called for an offensive foul. Turnovers bothered both sides in the early minutes of the period.

Spain stretched its lead to nine (40-31) at the three-minute mark when Xargay knocked down a deuce, but a jumper by Meesseman and a conventional three-point play from Mestdagh shaved the lead back to five (40-36, Spain) as the midpoint of the period approached.

A 6-0 Spanish run over the following minute, consisting of a pair from the line by Ndour, coupled with a steal Palau turned into a layup and a jumper by Xargay, swelled Spain’s advantage to double digits just inside the five-minute mark.

But Belgium was not ready to go away, gradually chipping away at the lead. A layup and two at the line by Meesseman made it 46-40, Spain, at the 3:26 mark.

Ouvina replied with a trey on a feed from Palau. Mestdagh turned it over, and Vanloo fouled Torrens, placing her at the line, where she made both, restoring Spain to a 10-point lead with two minutes still to go. Another foul on Torrens made it a 12-point game (52-40), and by this point, Belgium was starting to miss even its free throws. Mestdagh finally staunched the bleeding for Belgium, with one of a pair from the line, the first scoring from Belgium in the final three minutes.

After a series of turnovers, Allemand finally netted a field-goal for Belgium, cutting Spain’s lead to single digits (52-43) but Torrens answered by draining a triple. Shots from Mestdagh and Meesseman in the final four seconds were both off the mark, sending the teams into the final frame with Spain on top, 55-43.

Belgium started the fourth period with a layup by Mestdagh on a very sweet pass from Meesseman. Allemand picked Ndour’s pocket and Mestdagh got the ball in to Meesseman who netted a step-back jumper, to shave Spain’s advantage 55-47 in the opening minute of play.

Spain called timeout, but out of the break, Xargay’s fade-away missed its mark, and Allemand took it in for a layup to make it a six-point game (55-49). Linskens blocked Anna Cruz’s layup attempt on Spain’s next possession, and this time it was Meesseman who netted the layup on an assist from Allemand.

Another shot block by Linskens, this one on Ndour’s jumper, put the ball back in Belgium’s hands. Ndour made her displeasure known and was blown for a technical. Mestdagh made the free throw, and then took a feed from Carpreaux and laid another one in, capping an 11-0 Belgian run and making it a one-point game, 55-54, with a little more than seven minutes to go.

Nicholls fed Gil, who finally got Spain back on the scoreboard with a jumper, putting Spain ahead, 57-54, at the 6:23 mark.  Over the next two minutes, neither side was able to land a shot and committed several turnovers amid the intensity.

Torrens finally moved the scoreboard, draining a long three-pointer, giving Spain a six-point lead (60-54) just outside the four-minute mark.

Meesseman shaved the Spanish edge back a bit with two from the line, but Belgium would not get the job done trading treys for free throws.

Mestdagh picked off a bad pass by Torrens, but Spain got it right back when the officials failed to identify the Spanish player who deflected the ball out of bounds, instead calling the error a bad pass by Allemand.

Nicholls brought the crowd to life when she landed a jumper to put Spain up by four (62-58) as the game entered its final two minutes. Linskens again turned the ball over, and Nicholls made her pay, netting a jumper on a Xargay assist. With the scoreboard now reading 64-58, Spain, and the clock winding down to 1:37, Belgium called timeout.

Meesseman’s layup attempt rolled off the rim, but Ndour was called for a foul, and Meesseman netted both. Allemand drove the line, but hesitated a moment, then made an ill-considered extra pass Mestdagh could not hang onto, giving the ball back to Spain, who capitalized on the mistake with a three-pointer from Xargay, bring the crowd to its feet.

With the score now 67-60, Xargay’s trey all but sealed the deal.  Mestdagh attempted a three, but her shot was off the mark. Nicholls grabbed the board, and though four seconds still showed on the clock, threw the ball high into the air, starting the celebration a few ticks too early. Where it landed, no one knows, but the officials allowed the clock to run out on the Spanish victory, and with the outcome already determined, Belgium did not bother to complain.

Xargay led Spain with 17 points, plus three assists and four steals and was named player of the game. Torrens added 15 points, two boards and three steals, while Ndour added 13 points plus six rebounds and a block. Nicholls notched only six points, but led her team on the backboards, with a game-high 10 rebounds.

Meesseman talked a game-high 24 points to go with nine rebounds, and assist and a steal for Belgium. Mestdagh contributed 15 points, four boards, an assist and a steal, but coughed the ball up four times. Allemand passed out eight assists, a game high, but also led all players in turnovers with five.

Belgium shot 46 percent (24/52) from the field, significantly better than Spain’s 38-percent (25/65) field-goal shooting. It also controlled the paint to the tune of 32-24. However, Spain more than made up that difference from beyond the arc, where it netted 47 percent (8/17) of its shots from downtown.

Though Belgian rebounding slumped at times, for the game as a whole, Belgium out-rebounded Spain slightly, 32-31. However, 14 of Spain’s rebounds came off the offensive glass, to just nine O-boards for Belgium, and Spain was able to translate that advantage into nine second-chance points, to just two for Belgium.

The other significant differential in this game was turnovers. Spain limited itself to 15 turnovers, which though high, was far better than Belgium’s 23.  Perhaps underlying those mistakes was Spain’s greater experience, as well as its depth: The Spaniards enjoyed 29 bench points, to just seven for Belgium. That is a highly significant difference in a game such as this that went down to the wire, with both teams leaving it all on the floor.

Though Spain will take its place on the medal stand while Belgium heads home empty-handed, the future seems bright for Belgian women’s basketball. Its rise to the finals in its first-ever World Cup appearance, and the fierce fight this young team game to the Spanish veterans, speak well of its character. Turnovers are an element that can be brought under control with experience in play at this level, and three-point shooting is a matter of finding a player who has the right stroke at the right moments.

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