Women’s World Cup: USA sweeps to gold with 77-64 win over Spain, October 2014

Written with Lee Michelson

After a semifinal game against Australia that offered some moments of drama and tension, the United States dismissed any doubts early on as to who would emerge victorious in their gold-medal match against Spain at the Fenerbahçhe Arena in Istanbul, Sunday.

Tina Charles (New York Liberty) opened the scoring with a layup, Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx) scored the first of her team-high 18-points on a silky smooth three off a dish from Charles, and before Spain could say “hola,” the United States surged to a 13-point (18-5) lead. From there, the lead at times ballooned to as many as 25, and Spain never got closer than 7, as the Americans rolled to a 77-64 victory to earn their second consecutive Women’s World Basketball Championship gold medal under coach Geno Auriemma (University of Connecticut), and their ninth World Championship gold overall. With the win, the Americans secured their berth at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“It’s very difficult to win these championships,” said Auriemma. “There’s a lot of great teams and they’re getting better all the time. For us to be able to do that, even though everybody expects us to do it, that doesn’t make it easier. Yesterday’s Australia’s game and today’s game against Spain were perfect examples of how difficult this is to win.

“I’m really proud of our team,” he continued. “These guys just finished playing in the WNBA and a lot of them are getting ready to go play in Europe. It’s a tremendous sacrifice that they made for their country and I can’t be more proud of them.”

The United States’ offense was at times elegant – as when Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) bulleted a court-long past to Seimone Augustus for one of her game-high assists – and at times muscular, as when Lindsay Whalen (Minnesota Lynx) ended the first quarter with a crowd-pleasing drive to the basket.

“I just tried to be aggressive and get in there and do my thing,” said Whalen, who was one of five Americans in double figures, finishing with 12 points. “That’s what I try to do for the team — come in and provide a spark. Each night that might be something different. It might be rebounding. It might be points. Tonight, it was driving and putting their guards back on their heels. I was able to do that and get in there, and help keep things flowing for us.”

“She’s a tank,” said Taurasi of Whalen. “When she gets going, nobody can stop her. Those points were huge for us.”

“We wanted to come out and jump on them as early as possible,” said Whalen of the game plan against Spain, who had had to battle hard on Saturday to get past Turkey into the final. Mission accomplished.

The U.S. did its best work early on, with Moore, who won tournament MVP honors, knocking down three treys and a mid-range jumper in the first five minutes alone. When Moore wasn’t lobbing them in from downtown, Charles and Brittney Griner were busy inside, dropping in layups, as the Spaniards at first seemed powerless to stop them. The Americans shot a sizzling 71 percent (12-17) from the field in the opening quarter to take a 28-17 edge by the end of one.

After firing off four unanswered points to end the first quarter, the U.S. then reeled off an 11-0 run to open the second. Though the U.S. shooting cooled a bit from their, Team USA finished having shot 61 percent (20-33) from the field for the opening half and 54 percent (32-59) for the game as a whole.

With the exception of a late-game stretch when the Americans seemed to take their foot off the pedal, allowing Spain to outscore them 14-2 and to whittle the U.S. lead from 25 points to 13, the U.S defense was top form, too, holding the Spaniards to 27 percent shooting in the first half and 31 percent for the game. Taurasi drew the assignment of defending potent guard Alba Torrens, who had scorched Turkey for 28 points in Saturday’s semifinal. On Sunday, Taurasi and her relievers held Torrens scoreless for the first half and to 4-for-14 shooting on the night. The Spanish sharpshooter did not notch her first points until late in the third period, when she finally netted a three, and though she finished with 10 points, by that time, the game was in hand for the Americans.

“She’s a great player,” said Taurasi of Torrens, who together with Spain’s Sancho Lyttle, joined Moore, Griner and Australian Penny Taylor on the All-Tournament Team. “I’ve played against her a million times and we’re going to be teammates in Russia. I just really concentrated on doing my best to make it hard for her.”

The U.S. took a 19-point lead (48-29) with them to the locker room at the break. Despite the substantial U.S. lead, the Spaniards never gave up, however, playing with physicality and passion throughout. They traded baskets with the U.S. throughout the third period. At one point, Spaniard Laura Nicholls, hit the deck hard, for the second time in as many minutes, as she and Griner ran up court. After being whistled for a personal foul, Nicholls angrily advanced on Griner, appearing ready to fight. Griner stood her ground though restrained by several teammates. Though cooler heads prevailed and no fisticuffs ensued, a replay showed that Nicholls’ tumble had been precipitated when Griner caught Nicholls her with an elbow. The two were assessed offsetting technicals, and Spanish coach Lucas Mondelo later chalked the incident up to two players both wanting, and trying hard, to win.

Play resumed, with neither side gaining or losing ground, the U.S. lead still at 19 (67-48) heading into the final frame.

The U.S. briefly extended its lead back to 25 points (75-50) in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, but from there, on the edge of victory, they seemed to lose focus, while Spain, capitalizing on its offensive rebounding — though the U.S. controlled the defensive glass to the tune of 26-14, Spain dominated the offensive boards, 18-4, and turned that advantage into 17 second-chance points to just five for the Americans — as well as a series of U.S. fouls and turnovers took off on an 14-2 run to cut the margin to 13 points (77-64) with a minute and 20 seconds remaining.

Griner attempted to ice the American victory with a jam in the final seconds, but was thwarted by a foul. (Spain’s Nicholls showed she, too, could dunk during warm-ups, but did not attempt one during the game.)

Four U.S. players joined Moore in double figures with Whalen adding 12 points, Brittney Griner 11, and Seimone Augustus and Tina Charles 10 apiece. Charles also led the U.S. campaign on the backboards with eight rebounds; Augustus hauled down four.

Scoring apart, the most effective U.S. player in this game, as measured by her +/- score, was Taurasi, who finished the day at +24. The numbers bear testament to her efforts as a defender and facilitator as Taurasi finished the day with just six points, but eight assists, to her credit.

Lyttle led the way for Spain with 16 points plus 11 rebounds. Anna Cruz posted 11; Nicholls finished with a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds, plus two assists and two steals, and Torrens chipped in 10 points. Despite the final loss, the silver medal marked an historic accomplishment for Spain, which had never previously reached the Women’s World Championship final.

With Sunday’s gold medal, her third, to go with the bronze from 2006, Sue Bird became the most decorated athlete, male or female, in FIBA World Championship history. Asked about the record Bird replied,“I know when I hear 2006 [when the USA returned with the bronze medal], it still makes me mad.

“But,” she continued, “I don’t really know how to feel about it right now, to be honest. It’s kind of surreal. I’ve had a lot of great coaches along the way; some amazing teammates along the way. I definitely didn’t do this by myself. I just tried to be whatever it was that my team needed me to be and try to be consistent at that. I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to do it for this long.”

Moore had a similar reaction to winning World Championship MVP honors to go along with her WNBA MVP hardware for 2014.

“It hasn’t really hit me,” Moore said. “I’m just excited that we won. If one of us is talking about what MVP means, it means our team won. So, that’s what I’m most excited about. I’m just grateful to be able to contribute to this phenomenal team. Just the legacy of USA Basketball is unparalleled.”

 

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