Showing a crisper offense and stellar defense, the U.S. used an early 14-0 run to take control against Nigeria en route to a 93-62 victory at Michelob ULTRA Arena at Mandalay Bay, which gave the Americans a 1-2 record during its six-day stay in Las Vegas.
The victory will help make for a happy flight to Tokyo as the USA departs for the Olympic Games on Monday.
A’ja Wilson (Las Vegas Aces) had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Americans, while Breanna Stewart (Seattle Storm) had 14 points, Brittney Griner (Baylor) scored 12 and Jewell Loyd (Seattle Storm) and Sylvia Fowles (Minnesota Lynx) finished with 10 each. Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) sat out all three exhibition games due to a strained hip muscle as she prepares for her fifth Olympic Games.
Atonye Nyingifa led Nigeria with nine points.
Next up is a rematch with Nigeria, the 17th-ranked team in FIBA, 6,000 miles away in the Americans’ Olympic opener July 27.
“I was a little like, ‘Uh-oh, like this isn’t … because, you know, people talk, people are going to jump the gun and just say everything and anything,” Wilson said of the rare exhibition losses. “But once I got in the locker room, one of the vets in there was just like, ‘It’s OK. It’s a part of it. It’s a part of the game, but we’re going to get back.”
The steadiness isn’t surprising with six returning Olympians, including four-time gold medalists Taurasi and Sue Bird (Seattle Storm), in the locker room and it’s a big reason the USA National Team has now won 200 exhibition games against just 18 losses (a .917 winning percentage) since the historic 1995-96 USA National Team’s 52-game lead-up to the 1996 Olympic Games.
“You dropped two games, you got some of the fiercest competitors in the locker room,” U.S. coach Dawn Staley (University of South Carolina) said. “(It was an) unfamiliar feeling. We had a good practice yesterday when we got a chance to work on some things, sharing the basketball and moving the basketball from side to side and also just getting the ball to our bigs, and once we played inside out, we just got into a rhythm that really helped us throughout the game.
Unselfish play, dominance on the glass (45-24) and getting into transition all were keys to unlocking the U.S. offense, which had its struggles in losses to the WNBA All-Stars 93-85 and Australia 70-67. The Americans had just three practices all week.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Griner said. “We’re only focused on USA Basketball now, all the WNBA stuff is gone. We’re able to just have more days to mesh together. Those days are really crucial for us, because we have a short amount of time. There’s no high, low in the season. We have to get on that high and roll with it.”
Griner and Wilson were a big key to the quick start for the U.S. After Wilson scored the first four American points, Griner added the next four to put the USA up 8-4. Griner’s second hoop triggered the 14-0 run that put the U.S. up 20-4 with 3:37 left in the first quarter.
A stifling defense was a big part of grabbing the early advantage as well, as the USA held Nigeria to 35.3% (6-17 FGs) in the first quarter and 30.6% (22-72 FGs) for the game.
Meanwhile, the Americans converted 53.8% (35-65 FGs) of their shots. They also made 9-of-16 3-pointers after hitting just 2-of-18 against Australia.
“I mean the defense was really good,” Wilson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt myself play defense like that, so I felt like we were all on one chord and understanding that we have layers to our defense and trusting the fact that someone is going to be there on the help side. So, I think we got a lot better on that side of the basketball.”
Not everything was perfect — the USA turned the ball over 20 times — but after Monday’s 12-hour flight to Tokyo, there will be six days of practice to clean up those issues before facing Nigeria again.
“Every day, regardless of wins and losses, we got better at something,” Loyd said. “Heading into practice, we’ll work some things out, add more things, and anytime you have the chance to be on the court with each other — because we didn’t have a normal training camp with all of us — we’re excited to be on the court and get better.”
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