The last time I saw members of the USA 19u team it was in May in Colorado Springs and that was Diamond DeShields who was waiting for a flight after the tryouts and team selections. Yesterday, I got to see the entire squad, including all the usual high school suspects from the FIBA 17s in Rodez, France last year standing at attention while the USA National Anthem was being played at the Puerto Montt Arena, host for the FIBA 19u Women’s World Championships.
Last June it was beautiful, balmy countryside of Rodez and Toulouse France. This July it’s way south of the border and the equator here in Puerto Montt, about hour and a half flight from Santiago. Depending on how you got it expect a 8-10 hour flight south. The creepy part of being this far away from the USA is that you’re still in the same time zone. Calls usually overseas come at strange hours. Here in Chile, we’re on the same time zone as DC and the East Coast.
The other aspect of this trip is that is now winter here in Chile. Packing for a six-day trip, with four of them traveling by plane, was crazy considering the 100-degree blast furnace up north on the East Coast. Getting here is at least two plane stops, I decided on Buenos Aires to Santiago to Puerto Montt as my entry. It was nice to see the sun in Santiago which was surrounded by the snow-capped Andes. Customs was a brutal ordeal waiting in a long line no matter what after paying a instant visa at the border for $140. The next flight was headed south again for Puerto Montt which is considered a awesome summer time place. But, now its winter and the outlook for my time here was clouds, rain and cold. I told everyone it’s like visiting friends in Normandy France in November or February. One of the people at the event, Nelson Isley who’s been in SA for a while, said you won’t see the sun for a while. All I could think of was the Pacific Northwest.
The weather may have been bad but the accommodations were fantastic as the modern and sharply appointed Holiday Inn sits 11-stories above a shopping mall, Bigger supermarket and movie complex. The food court here features all the usual fast food items but with a local twist as their versions of hot dogs and hamburgers come layered with guacamole. Except for everything in Spanish, you were almost home.
The venues for this event are Puerto Montt Arena and the Puerto Varas gymnasium about 30-minutes away by car, taxi or mini-bus. Since the Nigerian team canceled at the last minute the local committee switched a few games from Varas over to Montt. They moved the opening round forfeit games to the start and gave teams here a later start time.
The curious thing about coming to the 19u World Championships was the ability to see who made the cut up to their older national teams from last year’s 17u championships and the Youth Olympic Games 3 on 3 event in Singapore. Being the only American person outside of USAB staff and parents following these events last summer, it was neat to see how the rosters and teams would fare.
The first game was a shocker as a very strong China team in France last year looked stunned as Canada shot the lights out and routed China from the start for a 76-49 victory. The Chinese had no answer for the Canadian half-court zone press and the quickness of Nirra Fields, the 5-9 lead guard who’s going to jump Oak Hill Academy, VA to Mater Dei in Santa Ana, CA and team up with USA’s Jordan Adams for her senior high school year. Fields slid by the Chinese for 22 points and 9 rebounds. This was absolutely the upset of the day and it was the first game.
The USA team bounced into the gym for the second game vs. Japan. Looking at the experience and height differential it was considered to be an easy win for the USA. Head Coach Jen Rizzotti from Hartford, with her USA team comprised of six returning high school players. started a lineup that was part get people playing time and also to see who worked well with whom. The rotations were all over the page and during some stretches the USA team would jump out to a big lead and then the Japanese would fire back with hard play and some three pointers. The USA had a commanding halftime lead of 48-31 lead which the Japanese closed in the 3rd quarter to single digits on five three-pointers. Some quick subs and running by the USA punched the lead quickly by the end of the stanza to 64-51 but still outscored the USA team by four points for the period.
The height and inside dominance by Breanna Stewart, Malina Howard, Stefanie Dolson, Elizabeth Williams and Morgan Tuck produced 52 points inside for the USA.
“Japan played very fast and that was something we had to adjust to,” said 6-3 rising senior Breanna Stewart. “We definitely has a height advantage and we were able to go inside on them.”
On a lighter note, Stewart who hails from a wintry Syracuse was not put off by the weather here in Puerto Montt, Chile after USA competitions over the past two years in Mexico City and Rodez, France. “It’s great, it’s different but you get use to it. We’re enjoying our time here. It’s a great opportunity to represent your country.”
As for today’s contest against a weak Russia team, Stewart commented, “If we focus on defense and do our best there it should be a good outcome.”
Russia was expected to beat a weaker squad from Argentina and jumped out to an easy half-time lead of 37-17 only to see it disappear by the end of the third quarter 46-40. The Russians, who lost in Reze, France three weeks ago to the disjointed Nigerian team which missed this event, got serious enough in the final quarter to coast in for the win. Looking over the Russian roster it was missing at least three players as each team can carry 12 players. Russia had nine dress for the game. The traditional boxing match between the USA and Russia is not expect here at this event or in the future as most observers now sense the decline of women’s basketball in Russia some say to too many American playing there. Unlike the USA 19u Men’s team which was upset by Russia in Latvia earlier this month, the women should prevail again.
The rest of the day consisted of four more games, one in Puerto Varas between a very young Slovenia team and a surprising Chinese Taipei team which won 83-73 The other game in Puerto Varas was an expected 74-56 win by Italy over Egypt. Those games running at the same times as those in Montt were not worth seeing.
The next game in Puerto Montt featured the spunky host Chile team which was handled easily by a very talented French team 59-36. The final game of the evening was the best game of the day as Brazil outlasted a talented Spain team 71-64. While Spain has a very talented group of players there was no one dominate start able to go get points when needed. The Brazil team just a tad more athletic was able to bang some threes in the second half to keep their double digit lead for most of the game. Every time Spain closed, Brazil would get a layup or outside shot to hold them off.
Looking over the competition after the first day it’s easy to assume the USA will win this event and come home with the gold as no team has a much depth or talent who can score points. This was the difference in France last year as the USA team was the only group that had individuals who could go score points which is not the style of most of these global teams. With the USA being one of the youngest teams here with a lot of 1993’s and 1994’s facing a lot of 1992’s on other rosters, it’s quick to note how good we really are.
The teams that the USA will face in the coming days that could give them competition could be a huge Australia team which is bringing all their height from last years’ team in France. This is the biggest squad at the event and biggest group of Aussies I’ve ever seen in age-level. The crazy thing is that Australia was traditionally guard and big wing smart and lacking depth inside after the superstar Lauren Jackson. Now with at least five girls tipping that size chart the future looks bright for Australia to challenge the USA by the team all these players reach Rio in 2016. All they need is a few big lead guards and a bonafide create their shot scorer to wreak havoc on the USA.
After Australia, the Brazil, and France have the physical talent to challenge while Spain and China could be sticky opponents if they hit their shots and the USA gets lazy on defense. Talent wise the only competitors are physically Australia, Brazil and France and basketball wise Spain.
I have one more day to watch but with today contests fully observed it will be follow-up on talent evaluation. During a break in today’s game schedule I came back to my hotel and sat with a bevy of college coaches who just jetted into town to keep tabs on the USA Team players who they are recruiting and to also look at some of the younger talent on Slovenia and France. You can’t get players from China and those interesting Italian, Spanish, Brazilian, French and Russian players are college age and normally pros sitting on their home pro team benches.
Tomorrow starts the second half of the NCAA observation period. I will be here for that first day, missing the opening of the 2011 edition of the Nike/USJN 17u National Championships in Washington, DC with its biggest field ever with 240 teams. I will miss those first two days of pool play but get back in time on Sunday morning to watch the playoffs that evening.
It was great to see the college coaches who up as I was missing my compadre, Chris Hansen who covered the event in France last year for ESPN. Chris and ESPN are MIA this year but hopefully he’ll be back for the 2012 FIBA 17u World Championships next year in the Netherlands right after the London Olympics.
And yes, I will be there for both of those events.