USA overcomes slow start to rout Nigeria in FIBA World Cup quarterfinals, 71-40

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SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAGUNA, TENERIFE, SPAIN – The United States took care of business on Friday, ultimately defeating a strong and proud team from Nigeria, 71-40, to kick off the quarterfinal round of the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup at the Pabillion de San Martin in San Cristobal de La Laguna in Tenerife, Spain.

It was hard to account for the exceedingly slow United States start. Tip-off came at 11:30 a.m. and maybe the Americans were still a bit sleepy. Then, again, perhaps there were residual effects remaining from the wine-tasting outing mentioned on social media as one of the activities enjoyed by the Americans during their two days of rest from the competition.

No, explained team captain Sue Bird explained with a laugh afterward. That event had been organized for the family members and supporters traveling with the team and not for the players themselves.

One factor might have been the hefty number of fouls called – on both sides — in the early going. Center Brittney Griner, who got the starting nod for the U.S. in the middle, picked up two fouls in as many minutes and had to take a seat. Both were offensive fouls, which don’t get called all that often in FIBA play, but there were plenty of the to go around this morning.

There would be many more whistles to follow – five for the United States and seven for Nigeria in the opening 10 minutes alone — with much of the limited first-quarter scoring occurring at the charity stripe. Even though USA was earning more trips to the foul line, the cacophony of whistles made it difficult for either team to establish much offensive flow.

Diana Taurasi was blown for a technical just two minutes into the second frame, and looked pretty frustrated when blown for a ticky-tack personal, her third of the morning and yet another offensive foul call, barely a minute later. American head coach Dawn Staley wisely subbed her out before things went any further south.

By game’s end, though, Taurasi had put it all in perspective. The multiplicity of whistles, she agreed, made it hard to establish any offensive rhythm, especially for the Americans, who rely on their rebounding and defensive pressure to fuel a fast-break game.

“It looked like it might get a little boring,” with the constant parade to the free-throw line, Taurasi quipped, but added, “That’s just how it goes. [The referees] are all over you early,” but by the second half, “they’ll let you get away with anything, … then just look at you and smile.”

The game is called differently in FIBA play, noted Bird, and “it’s our job to adjust to that,” she said.

She chalked the somnolent U.S. start off in part to the early start time and rather subdued atmosphere in the arena. “It seemed a little like a Camp Day in the WNBA,” Bird quipped.

Indeed, the energy seemed more than a little bit low for this sparsely attended brunch game in the Pabillion de San Martin, which is considerably larger than the Quico Cabrerra Arena where the Americans had been playing up until now. Thankfully, someone had thoughtfully improved the situation with a couple of busloads of uniformed local school children, wearing feathered headdresses and banging clappers in the Spanish colors of red and yellow. They made themselves heard from their berth in the nosebleeds, cheering enthusiastically for Team USA.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t that much to cheer about for supporters of Team USA in the early going. The Americans netted a paltry two of their 13 shots from the field (just 13 percent) in the opening period, and tallied only nine points in total, five of which came from the line.  Uncharacteristically for USA Basketball, they had only a single assist in the quarter, and while it is obviously hard to get an assist when no one is able to find the bottom of the bucket, the U.S. also threw the ball away eight times in the opening frame. Beyond that, far too many attempts were being made early in the shot clock with little ball movement and with no one in a U.S. uniform in position to rebound.

All of which was also part of the problem, according to Bird, who noted how these mistakes tend to feed on each other. “It’s hard to get started,” she stated, when you are missing easy shots early or lobbing the ball down court only to watch it roll out of bounds.

Add to that, she said, the slowness of the Americans to adjust to the defensive pressure brought to bear by Nigeria. “You’ve got to give credit to Nigeria,” she said. “Look how far they’ve come. … Nigeria’s a really tough team.  They play hard for 40 minutes. At the start of the game, we were a little out of sorts, trying to deal with their pressure, trying to get going. So even though we didn’t get out to the best start, the good news is that we responded, individually, collectively.”

Indeed, Nigeria was landing 42 percent of its shots from the floor in the early minutes, netting eight of their 19 field-goal attempts. They were also doing a respectable job of contesting the U.S. in rebounding, where the margin was 16-11 in favor of the United States in the opening frame.  And that was despite a significant height advantage for the Americans, Nigeria’s Evelyn Akhator (a Kentucky alumna) pointed out after the game.

“We’re the smallest team out here,” said Akhator.

Though just 5-11, Akhator played forward in her time with the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, but centers the Nigerian national team. Five feet, 11 inches is also the average height of the Nigerian squad as a whole. Although they also field 6-3 Elo Edem Edeferioka, also a center, and forward Aisha Mohammed (6-4), they match up poorly against the 6-8 Brittney Griner and the rest of the American frontcourt.

“It’s not only about height, though.”

True enough. Still height, and experience, and depth all make a difference, as they did for the rest of this game. But if it were all about heart, the outcome might well have been different, as the Nigerians battled bravely, even long after the Americans got their wheels under them and began to turn things around.

As they had by the second quarter, which got underway with Elena Delle Donne stepping up the U.S. defense with a clean block of Adaora Elonu’s layup. Griner was back on the floor to start the second quarter, and blocked Akhator a minute later. Her presence also helped out the U.S. rebounding effort.

On the offensive side of the ball, a Tina Charles layup, on a feed from Griner, broke the double-digit scoring barrier for the U.S. 40 seconds into the second period, but Elonu quickly answered with a layup. Fouled in the process by Taurasi, Elonu converted the traditional three-point play to make the score 20-11, Nigeria, at the 9:19 mark.

The Americans’ shooting did not improve as quickly as their defense and rebounding. However, that would be the last field goal for Nigeria for nearly the next seven minutes, when Arizona State graduate Promise Amukamara finally knocked down a jump shot to cap the 8-1 scoring run the U.S. had mounted in the intervening six minutes and change. By that point, the U.S. had shaved the margin to two points on a jumper by Delle Donne just inside the four-minute mark. And seconds after Anukamara’s jumper found the bottom of the net, it would be Delle Donne dishing to A’ja Wilson, who dropped in a layup to make it once again a one-possession game, 21-23, Nigeria.

According to Bird, she had never been worried, even during the few minutes that Team USA was on the receiving end of a double-digit deficit.

“Our reputation is kind of doing it to us right now. Everyone expects us to win by 40 in the first five minutes. Well, it’s a new day. That’s not necessarily how it’s going to be. We take wins any way we can get them, and that’s what today was.”

In fact, Bird was so sanguine in the face of Nigeria’s early charge, she recalled a bit of on-court smack talk during which one of the Nigerian players had told her to take a look at the scoreboard. “’Okay, I’ll look,’” Bird remembered herself saying, noting that at the time, Nigeria was on top by two points. Trusting that her team was already settling in and would soon make up that much and more, Bird said nothing.

“No,” said Bird when asked if she returned the compliment later in the game, when the U.S. had turned the proceedings into a rout. “I didn’t need to,” she added with a smile.

Less than 30 seconds later, Stewart nailed a three-pointer with an assist from Bird to give the U.S. a 24-23 lead with two minutes remaining in the half.

Edeferioka fouled Wilson away from the basket; Wilson made one of the pair of penalty shots, then dropped in a layup on a Bird assist, to give the United States a 27-23 lead heading into the locker room, as the U.S. defense continued to hold the Nigerian scorers silent to close out the second quarter.

In the entire second period, the Americans had allowed Nigeria just six points, on a mere two baskets. Over the second quarter, the U.S. had improved its shooting to a still less-than-impressive 30-percent (10-33) for the half, and began to move the ball more effectively, with six assists on their own eight second-period field goals. Rebounding was also much improved, with the U.S. winning the battle of the backboards, 32-19 for the opening half. They continued to experience difficulties with their handles, however, coughing the ball up six more times in the second frame for a total of 14 first-half turnovers (to just 10 for Nigeria. They also remained largely dry from long distance, as Stewart’s second-period trey was the only long-ball netted out of the Americans’ six attempts.

It was Bird who “took over” in the locker room, according to Nneka Ogwumike, who is of Nigerian descent and took pride in the performance of the team from her parent’s homeland. Ogwumike described how the veteran point guard calmed everyone down and offered useful suggestions to backcourt and frontcourt alike.

Bird said her message was simple. “We just had to have a talk and be like, ‘Guys, listen. We have to help each other. We can’t leave anybody on an island out there. We have to help each other,’” she said.  “Once we got that out in the open, I think we did a better job in the second half. It’s a long game. You can’t panic in the first half.”

Simple or not, Bird’s remarks were apparently taken to heart.

There was nothing slow about the American start to the second half of the game. In a matter of seconds, Charles had dished inside to Breanna Stewart, who dropped in a layup. Atonye Nyingifa turned it over with a traveling violation, and when Taurasi’s three-point attempt missed its mark, Charles scooped up the offensive board and put it back for a layup of her own.

Akhator quickly answered with a jumper at the far end, to make the score 31-25, only a little more than a minute into the second half, but another 10-2 U.S. scoring run over the next five-and-a-half minutes, interrupted only by a layup by Aisha Mohammed on an assist from Elonu, put the Americans up, 41-27, heading into the final four minutes of the period.

Kalu would finally break the Nigerian scoring drought with a driving layup at the 3:23 mark. From there, each side would notch six additional points, as a steal by Kalu, who picked off an errant pass by Kelsey Plum and dished it to Sarah Imovbioh for a buzzer-beating layup to close out the third quarter with the United States well in control, up 46-35.

The Nigerian coach was called for a technical foul after time expired. Stewart sank the penalty shot before the clock got rolling on the final quarter.

Sixteen seconds later, Stewart nailed her second three of the game on a feed from Tina Charles, as the Americans continued to roll. By the four-minute mark, Staley had most of her newcomers on the floor, anchored by Ogwumike in the middle. Even then, the Nigerians were unable to make up any ground, as even the deep end of the bench outscored Nigeria, 9-3, in the games waning minutes.

To that point, the Americans had given up only two points in the final frame, while padding their own margin by 22 fourth-quarter points to close the game, 71-40.

Stewart led all scorers with 19 points, on 88-percent field-goal shooting, including two-for-two from beyond the arc, and missing only a single shot, from the field or the foul line, the entire morning. She also handed out five assists (tied for a game-high with Layshia Clarendon’s five dishes), and pulled down three rebounds. Wilson added 11 points on four-of-six (67 percent) from the floor, and also contributed six rebounds, two blocks and two steals.

Charles led the way for the Americans on the backboards, hauling down a game-high 15 rebounds to go with her eight points, three assists and a steal.

As a team, the USA upgraded its shooting to 41-percent (25/68) from the field by game’s end, and went five-for-14 (36 percent) from behind the arc. If that seems a tad uninspiring, consider the margin of improvement from the team’s 13-percent field-goal shooting and zero-for-two performance from the arc in the opening frame.

Of the team’s 28 baskets, 22 would come from assists. The United States dominated the paint, 38-14, as well as the glass, 62-32, including 16 offensive boards from which they garnered 13 second-chance points to just two points on Nigeria’s eight offensive rebounds. They also inspired some excitement with seven blocked shots.

One stat line Staley is sure to be unhappy with will be her team’s 23 turnovers, the worst ball-handling performance of the U.S. team for the tournament, and even though Nigeria also had problems with coughing up the rock with 22 turnovers only seven of their miscues came as a result of American steals.

No Nigerian player finished in double figures, as Akhator and Kalu led their team with eight points each. In the face of the intensified American defense, Nigeria’s shooting fell to 25 percent (17/67) by game’s end, and just 14 percent (2/14) from downtown. Still, Akhator was proud of her team’s much improved performance on the world stage, and predicts great things to come for Nigeria’s national team in the future.

With the win, Team USA earns a spot in the semifinals, where they will face the winner of this evening’s game between Belgium versus France tomorrow evening.

Nigeria drops into the classification bracket where it will compete for a fifth-through-eighth-place ranking.

All photos ©Jordan Michaelson/

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