PANVEZYS, Lithuania – Counting on the play of its veteran leadership, the 2013 USA U19 World Championship Team (6-0) fought off a determined France (5-1) squad and held on for a 69-63 victory to close second round play on Wednesday night in Panevezys, Lithuania.
Breanna Stewart (Connecticut / North Syracuse, N.Y.) and Morgan Tuck (Connecticut / Bolingbrook, Ill.) paced the U.S. in scoring with 22 and 16 points, respectively. The Americans also received outstanding play, especially down the stretch, from Bashaara Graves (Tennessee / Clarksville, Tenn.), who finished with four points and seven rebounds; Alexis Jones (Duke / Irving, Texas), who notched nine points, three rebounds, a game-high five assists and two blocked shots; while Linnae Harper (Whitney Young H.S. / Chicago, Ill.) contributed five points, had seven boards and three assists. In addition to the contributions by the USA Basketball veterans, A’ja Wilson (Heathwood Hall H.S / Hopkins, S.C.) scored eight points, hauled in nine boards and had a pair of blocked shots.
With the win, the USA advances to the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship quarterfinals as the top seed out of Group F and will face Japan (3-3), which finished fourth in Group E, in Friday’s (1:15 p.m. EDT) quarterfinal contest.
The first three quarterfinals match-ups are: Spain (6-0) versus Canada (3-3), Brazil (4-2) versus France and Australia (5-1) versus China (4-2). Should the U.S. advance to the July 27 medal semifinals, it will face the winner of the Australia-China contest for the right to play in the July 28 gold medal game. The medal semifinals and the gold and bronze medal games will be streamed live online by ESPN3.
“We have a ton of respect for France,” said USA U19 and University of Miami head coach Katie Meier. “They match us athletically. They are better than us in pace of play and they controlled the tempo tonight. We couldn’t impose our will on them, because they’re a very veteran team. We had to play their game and break through our box of tricks. We had to dig through our half court offenses and our half court defenses and really execute. We figured it out, but it took a long time to figure it out. They’re a very sophisticated, high-level basketball club.”
While the USA took the lead late in the first quarter and never again trailed, France would not capitulate and kept the game close throughout.
As the game was winding down, the French put together a 6-0 spurt -- its largest scoring run of the game -- to inch to within two points, 65-63, with 1:03 remaining.
After France picked up its fourth team foul of the period with 44 seconds to play, the USA worked the ball around and Bashaara Graves managed to put up a shot between a pair of French defenders. However, that was blocked and the shot clock continued to wind down. She got her own offensive board, but had nowhere to go and passed the ball out of the key to Tuck with two seconds left on the shot clock. Tuck saw Jones open, passed it and Jones, who went 0-of-4 from 3-point to start the game, sent up her fifth 3-point attempt. The ball found its mark as the shot clock expired and the USA held a five-point cushion, 68-63.
“That was great,” said Stewart. “I wasn’t sure she was going to get it off in time. I saw the shot clock and Morgan (Tuck) had it with two seconds (to go) in her hands, but I knew she just had to shoot it and I was hoping it was going in.”
France called for a time out and when play resumed, the Europeans put the ball in at half court and got it into the hands of Mamignan Toure, a 25.0 percent 3-point shooter through the team’s first five games. She stepped back to shoot, but Jones was there for the block and the Americans got the board.
“I knew she was a shooter, so I just tried to play up to her and as soon as she put the ball back on the floor, I knew it was going up,” said Jones. “So, I just tried to hurry up and contest the shot as best as I could.”
“It was really big,” said Tuck, who scored the game’s final point from the line with 18 seconds remaining. “That was a really big play that we needed. We needed a stop and that’s what we were struggling to get. I think she did a great job of being really tough on the offensive end and then coming right back and being tough on defense.
Following Tuck’s free throw, USA kept France from getting a shot off over the final 18 seconds for the win.
“It’s definitely something that we needed,” said Harper. “Our previous games weren’t so close, but this game really showed us that we need to come together focused, be coachable, listen to the coaches and take criticism, because the next three games are going to be very critical.”
The game started off as a back and forth affair and with 3:55 left in the first quarter, France held a 15-11 edge. However, a put-back from Wilson was followed by a pair of baskets from Tuck and Stewart closed the first half with a fast-break layin to give her side a 19-15 advantage. While the American women never again trailed, each time they made a run, France returned fire and closed the gap and by the end of the first half, the U.S. headed to the locker room up 30-24.
The third quarter was almost dead even, with the USA holding a 24-22 edge and held onto an eight-point advantage, 54-46, with 10 minutes to play.
It looked as if the U.S. was going to pull away in the final stanza after a Moriah Jefferson (Connecticut / Glenn Heights, Texas) 3-pointer at 7:35 put the red, white and blue up by 12, 63-51, but France’s defense helped fuel its offense into a 12-2 run that closed the game to 65-63 at 1:03.
“We really haven’t had a close game since we played our exhibition against Australia,” said Tuck. “So, I think it gave us a good feel of how the medal rounds will be and how we have to make sure that we really focus in and be deliberate on offense and defense.”
The teams were fairly well matched as the USA shot 39.7 percent from the floor and France shot 38.8 percent. The rebound advantage was 43-40 to the USA, which also edged France 16-14 in points off turnovers. France outscored the U.S. 34-32 in the paint and 16-15 on second chance points, but the USA edged ahead on fast break points (6-4) and points off the bench (13-7).
“I loved every second of the game,” added Meier. “I loved coaching it, I loved the time outs, I loved the ebb and flow, I loved the special situations. I loved it. I was having a great time during that game because you think, who’s going to hit the big shot? Who’s going to make the defensive stop? What are we going to do on a certain screen action. There were so many questions that we had to solve and we really hadn’t had to solve them yet in this tournament, so for me it was an encyclopedia of information to digest tonight and tomorrow before we play again on Friday.” In other second-round games Australia (5-1) downed Serbia (1-5) 89-53, China (4-2) nipped the Netherlands (2-4) 73-61, Japan (3-3) earned the right to advance to the quarterfinals after defeating Russia (2-4) 88-68, Canada (3-3) beat host Lithuania (1-5) 68-47, while Spain (6-0) fought past Brazil (4-2) 71-62.
In classification games for 13th-16th places, South Korea (3-3) finished 13th with a 76-57 victory over 15th placed Mali (1-5), while Argentina (2-4) took 14th with a 62-40 win over Senegal (0-6), which finished 16th.
Assisting Meier and the U19 squad are collegiate head coaches Nikki Caldwell of Louisiana State University and Kelly Graves of Gonzaga University.
Originally known as the FIBA Junior World Championship, the tournament was held every four years starting in 1985. FIBA changed its calendar in 2006 and now conducts the U19 World Championship every other year. USA women’s teams are now 62-12 in the U19/Junior World Championships, capturing a fourth-consecutive gold medal with an 8-1 record most recently in 2011. The U.S. has captured five of the last six U19/Junior World Championship gold medals and boasts a 50-4 record over that span, to include the 5-0 slate at the 2013 U19 Worlds.