TOULOUSE, France -- The overseas journey for the USA Basketball U17 national team and its pursuit of a gold medal began three weeks ago in Spain. And after a long and arduous battle with China in the semifinal of the FIBA U17 World Championships it probably feels more like three months.
Don't read too much into the point differential from USA's 97-74 victory over China. Team USA led by just six at the end of the third quarter and didn't stretch the lead to 15-plus until the 4:25 remained to play.
It was a physical battle in which the US players found themselves on the ground, more than the rest of the tournament combined.
Elizabeth Williams went down in the second quarter when she got hit in the eye. She spent several minutes on her back while USA Basketball trainers looked her over. After the game her left eye was a deep red from the impact, though her contact lens helped protect her eye from major damage.
With a rematch looming with France, this time for a gold medal, much will depend on the ability of the US players to maintain the focus with fatigue now in play. France has played with seven players getting a majority of the minutes but the tough game against China may have narrowed the fatigue gap.
For the USA, three players -- Elizabeth Williams (25:19), Breanna Stewart (27:18), and Ariel Massengale (28:51) -- went over 25 minutes against China. It is the first time in the tournament any player eclipsed the 25-minute mark in a single game.
Despite the 70-45 margin in the pool play contest between the two teams, both have improved over the course of the tournament. French guard Olivia Epoupa was the key the semifinal victory over Belgium. She was also a pest, along with Esther Niamke, and tormented the USA guards with ball pressure that no other team has been able to bring.
In every contest depth has been the biggest difference for the Americans and with three key players logging major minutes after being on the road for so long, the bench play will be as important as ever.
The Americans played through a hostile, hometown crowd in Rodez that was estimated at 2,600 spectators. In Toulouse it is expected to be even more raucous with 4,338 seats in the arena.
The two teams play a similar style with two post players on the floor for a majority of the game and pressure defense up top. The USA dominated the glass in the first contest and held France to just 29 percent shooting from the floor.
The game against China was not a good barometer of how the game with France will go as only the Spanish let the 3-ball fly as liberally as the Chinese. It was the 11 threes that China hit in the first half that kept them in the game.
Meng Li hit six of her eight attempts from behind the arc in the first half, scoring 20 points and keeping China within six of the USA after 20 minutes of play. In all China shot 41 threes. By contrast, France averages a little more than 20 attempts from long-range per contest and shot 24 of them in the initial meeting, converting on just four.
In the first matchup, USA held France's leading scorer Christelle Diallo, a 6-foot-4 post, to just seven points. The front-court players will again be relied on to bring strength and physicality in the lane if USA wants a duplicate result.
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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