Team USA learns lesson in focus
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- For the first time at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship that's being held at the Olympic Training Center this week, USA coach Jennifer Rizzotti on Saturday lit into her team during a timeout.
The reason? Lack of hustle. The message? They should never get tired of being great.
The Americans have been beating up on every international team they have faced the last four days, and a mental letdown at some point was something Rizzotti thought might happen. But blowout leads are no reason to slack.
At the end of the third quarter, leading 70-17, the U.S. decided to not get back on defense, allowing Chile to score an uncontested layup. The basket did not mean much in the end -- the U.S. won 98-28, earning a spot in the gold-medal game Sunday against Brazil. Rizzotti didn't care about what the scoreboard said; she just wanted to send a message.
In the huddle, Rizzotti reminded her players that a second-best effort wouldn't cut it to win the gold medal, especially against a Brazilian team that plays with unmatched passion and energy. So she pulled all five players who had been on the floor and started the fourth quarter with a fresh unit. Their only job was to go all out.
"It's never OK to give someone a wide-open shot, and I challenged them at the beginning of the fourth quarter," Rizzotti said. "It shouldn't matter who we're beating or by how much -- you never settle."
Chiney Ogwumike, the Americans' unquestionable leader, took Rizzotti's message to heart. After being pulled out in the first half by Rizzotti, who questioned Ogwumike's focus, the Stanford-bound forward redirected her concentration, finishing the game with 17 points and seven rebounds.
"We were a bit lethargic," Ogwumike admitted afterward. "Sometimes you can go out and give 100 percent but be on a different page [than your team] so it doesn't matter. That's what we learned today."
Now the Americans must narrow their focus again, recognizing that the Brazil team they beat 89-46 three days ago has steadily improved. Brazil advanced to the gold-medal game by staging a late comeback from a double-digit deficit to beat Canada on Saturday.
"They bring plenty of passion and energy, and sometimes those things can prove to make you the better team," Ogwumike said. "But it's the gold medal game. We'll be ready."
Should Brazil give the Americans a game Sunday -- which would be a welcome change from all the blowouts -- the sharp shooting of Kayla McBride should come in handy.
The 5-foot-11 guard has provided the U.S. with a pure shooter on the perimeter, and has averaged almost nine points per game. She has also been near-perfect from the free-throw line, hitting 93 percent. But even she was guilty of taking a play off against Chile, something she promises not to do today.
"We've been here for three weeks, and I think we're all kinda tired mentally and physically," said McBride, who will play at Notre Dame next year. "But our coaches do a really good job of getting us focused. They do not allow taking breaks."
It doesn't matter to Rizzotti if her team wins today by four or 40. The goal, she's told her players, is to measure yourself against the best version of yourself. The gold-medal game will not be about what the U.S. does against Brazil but rather, what they are capable of doing. And there will be no taking breaks.
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Lindsay Schnell is a staff writer for HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Oregon State University, she has been involved in the Oregon girls' basketball community for most her life as a player, high school coach, writer and fan. She also has been regular contributor to The Oregonian and won several awards for her writing. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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