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Friday, March 16, 2018

Team USA Knocked Out of Pan Am Medal Contention After 70-75 Loss to Puerto Rico

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Photo Caption: Puerto Rican defenders swarm Team USA’s Breanna Stewart (White, No. 8) on Day Two of the women’s basketball competition at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Saturday, October 22. Stewart, who finished with a team-high 14 points and 11 rebounds in the 70-75 U.S. loss that put an end to the Americans’ hope of defending their 2007 Pan Am championship and a 56-year string of Pan Am medal placements in women’s basketball, is the only high school player on the team and has been the bright light on the squad thus far, topping the tournament leaderboard in rebounding with 16 boards per game and ranking second in both total free throws (seven per game) and free-throw percentage (87.5 percent).

Photo Credit: Courtesy USA Basketball

By Lee Michaelson

For the first time since in the 56-year history of the Pan American Games for women, Team USA will not be on the medal stand when the flags are raised and the anthem plays to hail the continent’s new women’s basketball champion. The reigning champs were eliminated from medal contention after suffering their second heartbreaking loss in two days, this one at the hands of Puerto Rico, 70-75.

Puerto Rico has met the U.S. only twice previously in Pan Am competition, losing by wide margins in 1979 (124-69) and 1983 (112-65). But the Latin Americans avenged themselves on Saturday afternoon in Guadalajara, Mexico, battling back from a 14-25 first-quarter deficit to tie the score by the half and take the lead and the victory in the final period.

The U.S. has been, far and away, the most successful team in Pan Am women’s basketball, owning a 72-12 all-time win-loss record and a medal count of seven golds, four silvers and two bronze. The quadrennial games were inaugurated in 1951 for men and expanded to include women in 1955. Since then, the American women have never failed to finish among the top three in women’s basketball.*  In their last appearance, the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janiero, the U.S. marched to the gold with a perfect 5-0 record.

But the Games’ format and short schedule are unforgiving of shaky starts. The eight teams competing are divided into two preliminary round groups. Each team meets the others in its group over three days of preliminary round play. The top two teams from each preliminary round group advance to the medal semifinals, while the third and fourth-place teams in each group are knocked out of medal contention, dropping into a consolation bracket to battle it out for 5th-to-8th place with the losing teams from the opposing group.

Team USA takes on its Mexican hosts on Sunday at 8:00 p.m. Central in the final game of preliminary-round play, but there will be little at stake for either team but pride. Mexico edged out Argentina in a 58-57 nail-biter to keep its record perfect. No matter how poorly they perform on Sunday, they can finish no worse than 2-1, and since they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over both Argentina and Puerto Rico (whom they beat, 76-74, in Friday’s opener, they will definitely advance to Monday’s semifinals as the top team from Group A.

Conversely, no matter how well they play, the U.S., now 0-2, can finish no better than 1-2, placing them dead last in Group A.
Meanwhile, the remaining teams in Group A—Argentina and Puerto Rico, who face off on Sunday at 1:00 p.m.—both now hold 1-1 records. Each also now owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Team USA. Thus, the winner of Sunday’s match will advance out of Group A alongside Mexico, while the loser will join Team USA in the classification games.

Just as they did in Friday’s loss to Argentina, the Americans got out to an early start in Saturday’s game, taking a 5-0 lead in the first two-and-a-half minutes. Midway through the opening period, the U.S. launched a 9-0 run to give themselves a 19-5 lead at the 3:12 mark. Meanwhile, the U.S. defense was in lockdown mode, and even when Puerto Rico battled back in the closing minutes of the opening quarter, five of its nine points came at the free-throw line.  By the end of one, the scoreboard stood at 25-14 in favor of Team USA.

But again following the pattern established in their opening-game loss, the Americans seemed both to relax their defensive intensity and lose their scoring touch in the second period. Team USA scored just eight points in the second stanza and was held scoreless for nearly the final five minutes of the half. Meanwhile Puerto Rico put 19 on the scoreboard, led by Jazmine Sepulveda, who notched nine of her game-high 21 points in the first three minutes of the second period to help her team to a 33-33 tie by the intermission.

For much of the third period, the two teams traded baskets. Even when the U.S. capitalized on two treys by Marissa Kastanek (North Carolina State/Lincoln, Neb.), mounting an 8-0 run to take a 47-41 edge at the four-minute mark, Puerto Rico answered with a 6-0 run of its own, knotting the score once again at 47 apiece with a little over two minutes to go in the period. The U.S. nosed ahead, 51-49, heading into the final quarter.

Puerto Rico earned its win by outscoring the Americans, 26-19, in the fourth quarter, but that figure, which includes foul shots down the stretch, belies just how close this game really was, right down to the final minutes. As the quarter opened, Puerto Rico quickly recaptured the lead, going up by five in the first two minutes. Just a minute-and-a-half later, it was the U.S. on top, 58-56, thanks to a trey by Eastern Michigan’s Tavelyn James (Detroit, Mich.).

As the lead continued to swap hands with neither team able to gain traction, Puerto Rico’s Carla Cortijo put her team back on top, 65-64, at with just under four minutes to go. Puerto Rico still led by a single point (69-68) as the clock wound down to 2:28.

But a series of errors in the final minutes would cost the Americans the game and their hopes of defending their title. If the U.S. fell victim to the Argentine three-ball on Friday, it was turnovers (18 of them, to just 10 for Puerto Rico) that would sabotage the U.S. on Saturday. Team USA coughed up the ball twice in the next minute, then compounded the problem by fouling Puerto Rico’s Sepulveda as she drove to the basket at the 1:37 mark. Sepulveda knocked down both penalty shots to make it a three-point game (71-68).

Both teams missed on their next possessions, and then the U.S. turned it over again—this time on an offensive foul with 45 seconds remaining.

The Americans had plenty of time left, but sent Puerto Rico’s Carla Cortijo to the line with a shooting foul on the next possession. Cortijo nailed both, making it a two-possession game (73-68) with 27 seconds remaining. James laid it in at the other end to cut the lead to three (70-73) just seven seconds later, but now the Americans would be forced to foul to regain possession and some might argue that they took too long to do it. Either way, Cortijo, who was just 10-of-16 (63 percent) from the line on the night, was perfect when it counted, knocking down both to set the score at 75-70 with just 12 seconds to play.

Neither team would score again, though not through lack of trying. The U.S. missed its next attempt and sent Cortijo back to the line with 3.3 seconds remaining. This time, Cortijo missed both, but the writing was already on the wall as Kevi Luper (Oral Roberts/Adair, Okla.), the NCAA’s leading scorer in Division I women’s basketball last season (23.7 points per game), missed a Hail Mary at the buzzer to finish with just four points on the evening.

“It was unfortunate,” said U.S. head coach Ceal Barry. “We gave away a few possessions down the stretch, and that really hurt us.”

Still, Barry had praise for her team of young collegians (plus one high-schooler in leading scorer Breanna Stewart). While the rosters of some of their opponents include professionals—some of them WNBA players and Olympians—the U.S. team, drawn from 11 different schools and colleges (most of them from the mid-major conferences), had only six days together in training to prepare for the Games.

“I do think we have improved,” said Barry. “I felt like our team fought harder in the third quarter, and we didn’t dig ourselves into a hole.  The players worked hard, and they did the best that they could. I have no complaints. Their coaches should be proud at how they are representing their respective programs, and they are handling themselves with a lot of class.”

Despite their struggles, the Americans appear determined to hold their heads up and continue to improve as they finish the preliminaries and move into classification-round play.

“We can do a better job of executing and cutting down on the turnovers,” said Emilie Johnson (UC Santa Barbara/Loomis, Calif.), who contributed seven points and swiped three steals, but gave up four turnovers, in Saturday’s game. “Those are the main things. We are playing hard. I think we need to trust each other more. With only playing together a week, it comes down to trusting each other. We are right there.”

Stewart, who played 35 minutes in Saturday’s game, once again led the Americans, with a double-double of 14 points and 11 boards. However, she got insufficient help from her teammates, as James, who tallied 12 points and two assists, was the only other U.S. player to post double figures.

Shante Evans (Hofstra/West Chester, Pa.) also hauled down 11 rebounds, but contributed only five points, all of them coming at the line where she was a near-perfect five-of-six. Collectively, the Americans out-rebounded their Puerto Rican adversaries, 44-28.

As a whole, however, the U.S. shot the ball poorly (albeit better than on Friday), netting only 17 of their 44 attempts from the field (39 percent). Thanks largely to NC State’s Kastanek, who chipped in nine points on three-of-four from beyond the arc, the Americans were a much improved six-of-17 (35 percent) from long-range in Saturday’s Game-Two loss.

In addition to her game-high 21 points on a steely-eyed seven-of-10 from the floor, Puerto Rico’s Sepulveda (the tournament’s second-leading scorer at 20.5 points per game) pulled down a team-high six rebounds, dished out two assists and grabbed two steals (but gave up three turnovers). She was joined in double figures by Cortijo and by Marie Placido Morales, each of whom posted 16 points on 50-percent field-goal shooting. Collectively, Puerto Rico shot a respectable 42 percent (21-of-50) from the floor, despite an icy 22 percent (four-of-18) from beyond the arc.

The other Group A game also went down to the wire, as an enthusiastic crowd cheered on the home team as Mexico came from behind in the final seconds to take a 58-57 win over Argentina. Argentina carried an eight-point edge (37-29) into the locker room at the half, but Mexico rallied in the third quarter, holding Argentina to just seven points, while posting 12 of their own. Mexico continued to make up ground in the final quarter, with the lead continually seesawing back-and-forth.

Both teams looked gassed by game’s end, and both were cold from the field, with Argentina netting just 32 percent (12) of its 38 field-goal attempts, and Mexico knocking down 38 percent (also 12) of its 32 shots. 

As in their Friday night win over Team USA, the Argentines unleashed a hail of three-balls, and netted enough of them (nine-of-24) to make up for their unfortunate field-goal shooting overall. Mexico wasn’t hesitant about hoisting them up there either, but managed to connect on just four of their 17 attempts from beyond the arc.

Surprisingly, though Mexico owned a considerable height advantage, they did not box out effectively, allowing themselves to get out-rebounded by Argentina, losing the battle of the boards, 31-36. Argentina was particular aggressive on the offensive glass, taking a 13-6 advantage in offensive rebounding and making the most of their second-chance opportunities for much of the game.

Though Mexico is riding the wave of home-crowd support and will emerge at the top of Group A, they can ill-afford to stand around as flat-footed as they did on Saturday night should they meet Brazil, which is anchored by the WNBA’s Erika de Souza (Atlanta Dream), who was crowned MVP of the FIBA Americas Tournament earlier this month, in the semis or finals next week. The Mexicans have plenty of big girls, but they have got to learn to put their size to use, elevate to meet the ball rather than letting it come to them, and to hit the boards with far greater aggression.

In the end, foul shooting saved the day for Mexico, who netted 22 of their 27 attempts from the charity stripe. Argentina paid fewer visits to the line (14 for the game) and, more often than not, missed when they got there, netting just six—or 43 percent—of their free throws.

Erika Gomez led the way for Team Mexico with a game-high 20 points, 14 of which came at the free-throw line where she shot an impressive 82 percent. Gomez also pulled down seven boards and handed out four assists, but gave three of those back in turnovers. The quick-handed Brisa Margarita Silva added 16 points, including seven-of-eight from the charity stripe, and grabbed a game-high five steals, and Abril Selene Garcia contributed a 13-point/13-rebound double-double.

Spunky point guard Melisa Gretter was once again the leader for Argentina, but this time was held to a more modest 14 points on the night. Nadia Flores, who finished with 13, was the only other Argentine player to break the double-digit scoring mark. Agostina Paola Burani pulled down 11 rebounds, nearly a third of her team’s total boards, but had a miserable shooting night, landing only one of her six attempts from the field (17 percent) to finish with just two points.

On the opposite side of the bracket, in day-two Group-B action, Brazil (2-0) and Colombia (2-0) secured their berths in the semifinals, while Canada (0-2) and Jamaica (0-2) fell out of medal contention.

The Canadians, who suffered a beat-down at the hands of Brazil on Friday (53-78), lost a squeaker to Colombia, falling 57-59, in Saturday’s Game Two. Meanwhile, in the only Saturday game that didn’t come down to the final seconds, Brazil handed the Jamaicans a 116-34 shellacking.

Colombia will meet Brazil in Saturday at 10:30 a.m. (CDT), while Canada faces Jamaica at 5:30 p.m. Central. Neither game will alter which teams advance out of Group B, though either Brazil (the heavy Group-B favorite) or Colombia will lose its undefeated record.


*Though the 12th Pan American Games were held in Mar del Plata Argentina in 1995, there was no women’s basketball competition in that year because too few countries entered.

Originally published Sat, October 22, 2011

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