with additional reporting by Lee Michaelson
As the United States moves out of pool play unscathed (3-0) and prepares for their must-win matchup against France in Friday night’s quarterfinal round of the 2014 FIBA World Basketball Championship for Women, the memory of their exhibition loss against Les Bleues in Paris 11-days ago lingers.
“We didn’t play like we wanted to play,” said Angel McCoughtry (Atlanta Dream). “We were sluggish, even a bit lazy.”
“They played really well and we didn’t,” echoed Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx). “We didn’t play with the level of focus and energy that was required to beat them on their home court. Losing a game is going to open your eyes,” Moore continued. “For us, we don’t want to be reminded of those lessons by taking a loss. But it happened. And we’re going to make the most of it by taking those feelings and motivation into tomorrow’s game.”
When reminded how poorly she and teammate Diana Taurasi shot (Phoenix Mercury), Moore laughed. “We probably set a record for worst shooting from the two of us combined. When we’re playing against each other, we’ve no problem. When we’re teammates….” She laughed again. “I’m confident we’ll score the ball. When we come together and are locked in on defense, our offense will take care of itself.”
The player who could be the game changer for the U.S. arrived after the loss in Paris: Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury).
“We have been somewhat of a different team since she got here,” said U.S. head Geno Auriemma (University of Connecticut). “She’s able to impact the game in ways that others cannot. On the offensive end you have to use more than one player to guard her, and that helps our shooters. On the defensive end you can take more chances because you know if you make a mistake she’s back there to clean everything up. I think it’s a real source of comfort for our players knowing that she’s back there,” he added.
Sizing up the opposition, Auriemma pointed to two French players he called “exceptional”: point guard Céline Dumerc and center Sandrine Gruda. ”Céline has been a round for a long time. She knows the game; she’s very smart [and she’s] very much in control of her team. Even without scoring,” said Auriemma, “she does so much.
“Sandrine may be playing the best basketball I’ve seen her play in a long time,” Auriemma continued. “She’s very confident; she’s active. She’s just a very difficult match up for people. Those two are capable of winning the game. But, what they did in Paris was some other people made shots. And that, usually, is the difference. You spend so much time worrying about their two stars, and then all of a sudden, someone that you’re not paying attention to starts making a couple of shots. They’re a good team because everybody complements each other very well. But Celine and Sandrine are the two players that really make them dangerous.”
To counter the potent French duo, the Americans are looking to commit to the tough, defensive identity expected by their head coach. “We’re focused on making it extremely hard on getting the ball inside and then keeping them off the free throw line,” explained Moore. “Making them take hard shots from the perimeter and, obviously, not giving up threes. It’s a hard thing to do against good teams, but I think we definitely have the abilities on this team to do that. And it’s really fun when we play that way – we get off to the races in transition and the fun stuff starts.”
The “fun stuff” has taken a little longer to get to, acknowledged Auriemma, because of the change in the tournament’s format – this year teams play fewer games. “I was watching some film from the World Championship semifinals and the finals [in 2010],” he explained, “and we’d had seven games and we looked like this,” he said, snapsping his fingers sharply several times. “Now we’ve had three. But that’s the format.”
Since there is no easy way to, in his words, “get better quickly,” he’s cut down on what he’s expecting the team to do. “You have less things that you have to worry about, he explained. “You just give them a few things and try and get really good at those few things. We’ve gotten better every game we’ve played, and that’s a great sign.”
As for France, asked after Wednesday’s 61-48 French quarterfinal play-in rout of Brazil whether the Paris exhibition win over the U.S. 11 days ago gave her team confidence that they could defeat the Americans again in the quarterfinal, Dumerc replied without hesitation — in the negative. “None. None at all,” she said, sizing up her side’s chances of pulling off the upset.”
Some might criticize Dumerc’s approach as defeatist, but anyone who would say so could not know Dumerc. France’s go-to player in the clutch, Dumerc never gives up, and France won’t do so on Friday night either, she said forcefully. Rather, she was being realistic. “[The USA] will not play like that again. Maya [Moore] and Diana [Taurasi] will not play like that again. They will have practiced. They will have watched their mistakes. They will have adjusted to what we did [in Paris],” she said.
“We will play,” she said. “We will do our best. But to win? It will not happen.”
She is probably right, for the reasons she stated and others. First, when it comes to personnel, as Auriemma pointed out, the U.S. did not have Griner in France. France, itself, will be getting back a key player in Endy Miyem, who played a little less than eight minutes in Paris, before injuring her Achilles in the game against the Americans. She was sidelined for much of the tournament until Wednesday’s play-in game, when she appeared for a little less than 22 minutes but in relatively brief stints, with frequent trips back to the locker room for icing and retaping in-between. Miyem, who supplied just six points, was clearly not yet in top form.
“She is a crucial [piece] for us … when she is at her best,” said Dumerc of Miyem. “It is so important that we get her back … to health.”
Miyem, a somewhat undersized forward-center is indeed a valuable piece of the puzzle for France, especially when playing alongside, rather than in relief of Gruda. She gives France a second inside option against teams who opt to double Gruda. Still, at just 6-2, she is no match for Brittney Griner, whose presence by itself is bound to make this a significantly different game from the Paris friendly.
Gruda has been outstanding in preliminary-round play in Ankara, currently ranking fifth in the tournament in scoring at 15 points per game. That’s just two pegs behind Moore, who is tied for second on the tournament leaderboard at 16 points per game, but who had one of the worst games of her career against France in Paris, missing chippies inside and going 1/4 from beyond the arc, to finish with 11 points all but three of which came at the foul line. Taurasi, who had an equally bad day at the office in Paris and couldn’t seem to knock down a three to save herself, going 3/13 from the floor and 1/5 from distance to finish with 10 points. Taurasi, however, currently ranks third in the championship in 3-point field-goal percentage at 58.3 percent and is in a four-way tie for second in 3-point makes per game (2.3). Moore is hot on her heels in sixth place, shooting 46.7 percent from beyond the arc and is one of the three players tied with Taurasi in 3-point makes.
The highest-ranking French player? Dumerc, in a nine-way tie for 20th place, shooting 33.3 percent from long distance.
Perhaps the most important factor, given the uncharacteristically poor U.S. rebounding in Paris (the significantly shorter French out-rebounded the U.S., 44-38, in Paris) is the significant improvement of the Americans on the backboards over the course of the tournament. Tina Charles, Griner and Moore are all near the top of the tournament’s leaderboard, ranking fifth, eighth and 10th, with 8.7, 8.0 and 7.7 rebounds per game respectively. That might not sound like much, but consider the limited minutes played by the American starters thanks to the depth of Team USA. The numbers translate to 16.8, 17.5 and 13.3 rebounds per 40 minutes played.
How does that compare to the French? Gruda is the only French player who ranks anywhere in the top 20 when it comes to rebounds, and she weighs in in a tie with Griner for eighth place with eight boards per game. However, Gruda has had to play more than 30 minutes per game to get them, meaning her numbers work out to 10.6 rebounds per 40 minutes played — not bad, but certainly no comparison to the U.S. power on the backboards.
Indeed, Team USA currently stands at No. 1 overall in the tournament in both scoring (100 points per game) and rebounding (59.3 rebounds per game). France ranks seventh in scoring (65.3 points per game), though several of its contests in Ankara turned into low-scoring defensive duels, and fifth on the boards (40.3 rebounds per game).
Look for France to try to make this another of those low-scoring, defense-dominated games, to limit offensive boards, and to keep the U.S. out of its fast-break and turn them into a half-court team. Whether that will be enough, even if the French are successful, seems doubtful … but then again, that’s why the play the game on the hardwood.
Though his focus is on the upcoming game, Auriemma took a moment to reflect on sharing this tournament with his former player from Connecticut, Sue Bird (Seattle Storm), the only U.S player to compete in four World Championships.
“I don’t want to speak for her, but chances are this is her last World Championship,” said Auriemma. “She’s been incredibly consistent; she’s been a great leader through all this. She’s someone that everyone on the team respects. And when she left college, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to get a chance to coach her for another eight-year period.’ That’s just too unrealistic.
“But to be put back in that space – to be back in that time – and to see how good she was….,”‘ Auriemma continued. “What people sometimes forget about Sue was that she was always great in the absolute biggest games. Like, in her senior year, the whole season she was just moving along, keeping everybody in the right place at the right time, and then, in the NCAA tournament, boom! She has the ability to raise the level of her game to meet the occasion.
“So, whether it’s this year or in the Olympics, I am going to savor the minutes because I think she’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player. I’m going to finish my coaching career feeling like the luckiest person because most people only get to coach a person for four years and here I got to coach her for eight years.”