Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Monday, July 29, 2013

UConn Trio Leads USA U-19 Team To World Title And Gold

By Mike Siroky

If the three USA starters on the 2013 USA Under 19 national team from UConn are any barometer of success, then the rest of the college hoops universe is in for quite a challenge in upcoming seasons.

In other words, are UConn-vinced yet?

Of course, prior results do not guarantee future payoffs, but Brianna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson started the games and ended them with a 3-0 sweep in the medals round (9-0 overall) to win the Gold at the World Championship.

Any players who opted out of this experience missed the chance to represent their country, firm up their reputations and just have fun whippin’ on the world in the tournament in Lithuania.

The finale was with France, which lost its only two games of competition against USA. Maybe they were just happy to be guaranteed their nation’s first medal of any kind in these competitions. And they handed Spain its only loss in the semifinals.

USA, of course, wanted a got a Gold, the sixth in succession and the seventh of the eight U19 Championships.

The 61-28 finale showed all the work on defense made all the difference. It is hard to pick a superlative session, but USA allowed only six in the third quarter and two in the final quarter. It was smash-mouth basketball at its best.

Stewart – “Stewie” to her teammates in Lithuania – scored 16 in 32 minutes and becomes USA’s all-time leading scorer at this level. She was undeniably the MVP of the team, replicating the award she won as a freshman in April leading the Huskies in New Orleans to their eighth NCAA title, matching the record total previously collected by Tennessee.

“At halftime we talked about our defense, said USA coach Katie Meier (Miami). “They had only scored 20 points and that was huge for us.

"So, we just said that when push comes to shove, you win championships with your defense, so go out there and lock down and stay together as a team. That was just an amazing performance.

As for Stewart: “She’s such a special player and just when you think she’s tapped out, she’s getting better. Even throughout this tournament, she faced a lot of different defenses and a lot of different strategies.

“She’s patient and she hunts her shots when we need her. She rose to the occasion and that’s kind of her M.O. Wow, it’s a joy. She is joyful. She is just so fun to coach.

“Before the game when we were in the hotel lobby, I said, ‘I just want you to know, I came to win.’ And she’s like ‘I got you coach.’ It was like, ‘Wow!’ The kid’s got all that pressure on her and she told me she got me. She’s a champion.”

Stewart had 152 points in the USA’s games, moving past other UConn idols Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore and former Ohio State star Jantel Lavender.

Tennessee’s Bashara Graves made the starting lineup at last and led all rebounders with eight.

She and Kentucky incoming freshman Linnae Harper were the two world discoveries in this tournament, Harper a difference maker off the bench and Graves on the boards. Graves and Stewart each had 56 rebounds.

Harper finished with 32 assists, third best all-time. Starter Alexis Jones (Duke) finished with 39, tying the all-time assists record.

“It felt really good (to win the Gold),” said Harper. “Seeing the time go down, it was 10 seconds left, I was really excited, all the jitters were there and I was just happy to be able to the Gold.

“I think it was just being focused. We played them twice and they were good games.

"But if we just focused on the things we needed to do and play team ball, work together and have good chemistry, I thought we’d do good.”

Now she can focus on UK.

“It’s going to really help me with my confidence and also with my game. Being around college players and playing with them, I kind of know a little bit about college ball," Harper continued.

"Playing for coach Meier, she’s a college coach, so that really helped me a lot. I think I’ll be ready for Kentucky.”

Stewart also hit .583 on 3s, setting another U19 record, one that had stood since 2001.

Add up her work and Harper said the MVP was a no-brainer.

“She deserved it. She led us throughout the whole tournament. When we needed her, she was there. She’s a good team player and a leader. She deserved it.”

Stewart herself just rolled with the show.

“It was different (than previous USA Basketball tournaments) because I had a different role. Usually I’m not one of the older players and coming into it I was looked at as a veteran because I’ve been in these situations before I’ve had to play well and try to lead my team at the same time.”

Of course, she liked the defense.

“Definitely defense. You could see that they scored 20 points in the first half and then only eight in the second. I think that we really wanted to make a third quarter run and we did that, starting with our defense, which led to transition offense.”

She even said she was a little surprised – even if no one else was – that she won MVP. She said “shots were falling” and she was just “having fun” and the team goal was always the most important goal.

In fact, she didn’t watch her own stats and said becoming the all-time leading scorer in the 19 World Championship scoring leader was “news to me.”

Meier filled her in when it was all over.

“Coach Meier said it after the game. But, it’s just points. You could score points and still lose the game. I’m just happy that we won.”

She can now, like the others from this world-best team, look forward to a return to campus.

“I definitely think it is going to help me,” she said. “At UConn, I was obviously an underclassman, but being really able to try to create more of a leadership role for myself, I think that will only help me at UConn.

“From this coaching staff I learned a lot. It’s a great group of coaches from top D1 schools. I was very excited to be able to play under them. They’re on the same level that I am and I think they helped me create more of a leadership role and helped me play well.”

In the semifinal round, the opponent was one-loss Australia, which had tested USA in a pre-tournament game (they were in opposite brackets in Lithuania) in a six-point USA win.

This one was not as close.

USA qualified the Gold game with a 77-54 runaway.

Of course, it was Stewart who led the romp, with 23 points and eight rebounds.

After all, she had been on the five-member all-tournament team in the 2011 U19 Worlds. She scored 14 -- including the fist nine – of a 21-0 spree that locked this one away.

“Australia is just so good and they have incredible half-court execution,” said Meier. “We were really struggling to score and we couldn’t. Therefore, we had to run back and play half-court defense. The game was not going in our favor at all.

"As soon as we had an opportunity to throw in a little press and trapping action, which requires scoring, once we were able to start scoring just a little, we were able to get into that," Meier said.

“We weren’t pushing the ball well (in the first quarter),” said Jefferson. “We were playing their game by slowing it down and we weren’t going into our offense right.

"Once we got our tempo up and started pushing the ball, we started getting shot after shot.”

Once Australia took its last lead, 20-17, Stewart decided to take over, often on break started by a Tuck rebound. Harper also fed Stewart for several wide-open shots in the pivotal run.

As is usual with championship teams, defense displayed the tenacity that broke the opponent’s spirit. With two minutes left in the half, Australia had been shut out since taking the lead and USA had a 10-point margin, pushed to 18 by the break.

“Obviously that second quarter, that was one of the most thrilling moments in coaching ever,” said Meier. “That run, that 21-0 run was just so hard-earned. It didn’t come easy. They didn’t cough up the ball. Kids were covering and fighting and pursing balls. It was really, really tough. We played very, very hard in that stretch.”

By halftime, the USA already forced 11 turnovers, 10 of which were steals converted them into 10 points. After losing the rebounding battle in the first quarter 14-9, the U.S. stepped up their defense of the glass and outrebounded Australia 17-8 in the second quarter.

“My teammates did a really good job of getting me open,” said Stewart. “At that time I wanted to try and get us going as a team. Obviously any player could have done it on a team. I just made shots. People seemed to follow and it seemed to get us a pretty big lead.”

Tuck finished as the USA’s second-leading scorer and rebounder with nine points and seven rebounds while Harper had five and Jefferson four of the USA’s 22 assists.

The medals round started with a torching of Japan, USA had at least a four-inch height advantage at every position and used it well.

It showed up well in rebounding, 70-32 USA. That’s a world record by two, set in 2007 by the USA.

All 12 U.S. team members scored at least four points apiece, including six in double digits.

“Bashaara brought a really tough mentality,” said Meier. “Mo Jefferson, Morgan Tuck and Graves were just taking care of business. They were very focused; they really wanted to respond.

“And then Stewie was all over the glass and that got us some options, some run-out opportunities. She’s so versatile with the ball. I felt good about players responding to what we challenged them to do.”

USA started with routs of Lithuania, 113-47; China, 103-56; and Mali, 103-26. In the second round, the Netherlands fell, 102-42; then Canada, 88-54; and finally the first test by then-unbeaten France, 69-63. In that one, the USA starters were simply better than the France starters.

Originally known as the FIBA Junior World Championship, the tournament was played every four years starting in 1985.

FIBA changed its calendar in 2006 and now conducts the U19 World Championship every other year.

USA is 60-12 in the U19/Junior World Championships, capturing a fourth-consecutive Gold medal with an 8-1 record in 2011 and has taken five of the past six U19/Junior World Championships with a 54-4 record in that time, including the wins in this tournament.


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