With not much going right offensively, U.S. coach Dawn Staley turned to the Seattle Storm trio to help jumpstart the offense.
The move worked as Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird sparked a 14-3 run to close the first half and rally the U.S. to a 71-40 win over pesky Nigeria on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Women’s Basketball World Cup.
“I don’t know if it was conscious, but I did recognize that you did have three of the WNBA champions on the floor,” Staley said. “You put a team together like this, the more chemistry you can have on the floor by them playing together on respective WNBA teams it always helps.”
The U.S. trailed 20-13 midway through the second quarter before Stewart and her Seattle teammates took over. The Americans closed the half by scoring the final eight points to go up 27-23 at the break. Stewart’s 3-pointer with 2:04 left in the half gave the U.S. its first lead of the game. The Americans continued their run to start the second half and opened up a double-digit lead early in the third quarter that they wouldn’t relinquish.
Bird agreed that having the familiarity of her Storm teammates definitely helped stabilize things.
“In the last few years we had the four Minnesota players and when they were on the court together thing went a little smoother, it helps,” Bird said. “That’s our biggest hurdle, its new plays, its new players, its new positions. It’s a lot of getting to know you. When you do have players your familiar with it does help so much.”
Nigeria had been the surprise of the tournament by reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in the country’s history. The African nation had been winless in its only previous appearance in 2006. Nigeria, which features many former U.S. college players, wasn’t intimidated by the world’s No. 1 team.
The Nigerians went right at the U.S. and built a 17-9 lead after one quarter. After almost every basket, Nigeria coach Otis Hughley Jr. — who grew up in New York — was pumping his fist and cheering his team on. On the other end, the U.S. couldn’t buy a point. The Americans missed 14 of their 16 shots in the opening period and had eight turnovers while looking completely out of sync. It was the lowest scoring quarter of the tournament for the U.S.
“We did a lot of things right, we just couldn’t sustain,” Hughley said. “We gave them our best shot, it just got away from us.”
Stewart scored 19 points to lead the U.S. and Tina Charles added 8 points and 15 rebounds. The U.S. outrebounded Nigeria 62-32.
The win was the 20th straight for the Americans in the World Cup dating back to the bronze medal game of the 2006 tournament.
“Our shot selection wasn’t great. We were rushing things a little bit, we were trying to make the home run pass,” Bird said. “When you miss easy buckets early it gets in your head a little bit.”
The Americans only trailed for a total of 8:24 in the first three games combined. They were down for 16:38 against Nigeria.
With 71 points, the U.S. now sits at 9,999 in its World Cup history. The first point in the semifinals will make the Americans the first team to reach 10,000.
It was a Gamecocks reunion with Staley coaching against former player Sarah Imovbioh, who helped South Carolina in 2015-16 to a 33-2 record, including a 16-0 mark in the SEC. A’ja Wilson was a sophomore on that team. She finished with five points. … The game also had special meaning for USA Basketball star Nneka Ogwumike, who is of Nigerian descent. She had six points.
Nigeria forward, Elo Edeferioka, hit the two free throws with 3.2 seconds left that helped beat Greece and send the team to the quarterfinals for the first time ever. It was a bit of sweet redemption for Edefericka, who had missed two free throws in the WNIT title game for Georgia Tech last spring with 0.6 seconds left. The Yellow Jackets lost in triple OT to Michigan.