Japan ends China’s reign at World Gymnastics Championships; pommel horse dooms U.S.

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This was the moment Kohei Uchimura had waited for, a chance to clinch a team gold medal for Japan with the kind of beautiful gymnastics that’s propelled him to unprecedented individual success in the sport the last six years.

“This is a team competition, and I was the last to compete, and I really wanted to have a perfect routine,” he said, according to Worlds organizers.

He saluted the judges, took a deep breath and latched onto the high bar for the last routine of the men’s team final at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, on Wednesday night.

China, long the Lucy to Japan’s Charlie Brown, was already vanquished.

Upstart Great Britain performed well, but even an average Uchimura, a man who has won a record five straight World all-around titles plus an Olympic all-around gold, would be enough to clinch Japan’s first World title since 1978, the tail end of its dynasty.

So Uchimura began swinging about nine feet above the mat. He let go of the bar once for a high-flying, somersaulting release move … and grabbed the bar on the way down like he always does.

The crowd roared, not for Uchimura, but for the score of Great Britain’s Max Whitlock‘s outstanding floor exercise routine that clinched the host nation’s first men’s World team medal ever.

Uchimura, perhaps affected by the noise, swung a few more times and released again, this time twisting in the air.

This time, his arms reached, but he could not get a grip. Chalk dusted off the bar, and the Japanese legend crashed on his back on the mat.

Clearly dazed, Uchimura refused to lie down. He immediately, but slowly, stood up from the mat as the crowd’s gasps silenced.

Uchimura stuck his tongue out slightly, walked over to chalk up his hands again, saluted and remounted the high bar amid applause.

Had he lost the gold medal? A scoreboard check showed he needed 13.994 points for Japan to overtake Great Britain for the title. Doable with a fall, but any more errors could be costly.

So Uchimura picked up from where he left off. He let go of the bar for release moves three more times, catching the bar on his descent twice more and then dismounting. Uchimura landed on the mat a second time, sticking his feet and not moving.

He bowed and sauntered away from the apparatus. There was no raucous celebration — no fist pump as he had shown in 2014, when it appeared his clean high bar routine had clinched Japan a gold, only for China to come back later and steal it by one tenth of a point in Nanning, China.

There was no sign of emotion from Uchimura until he reached a coach a few seconds later. They shook hands, and Uchimura emerged with what appeared to be the slightest smile.

Perhaps then he knew. But he had to wait about two more minutes before the judges’ decision came down.

“I knew the score I needed, but I thought it would be difficult, because scoring on high bar was quite strict in qualifications,” said Uchimura, who scored 15.366 in qualifying without a fall, but lost 1.5 points combined for the fall and a loss in difficulty, according to NBC Olympics analyst Tim Daggett. “The feeling was just like the London Olympics after pommel horse [when Uchimura flailed on a dismount on the final routine, Japan appealed the low score and it was upgraded from fourth to the silver medal].”

The verdict was a Japanese gold medal by .473 of a point, thanks to a mediocre 14.466 for the most decorated all-around gymnast in history.

Uchimura has repeated in recent years that a team gold medal would mean more to him than another individual all-around title at this point in his career. He finally got it, and his reaction now that it was assured was to pump his fists and yell briefly while surrounded by teammates.

“I feel really bad,” Uchimura, who must pass five consecutive pictures of himself in the “Walk of Champions” to get to the competition floor in the Glasgow arena, said later. “But I have never won a team competition, and even though it wasn’t perfect, we still won the gold medal. The next time I am the last competitor, I want to do what is expected of the last competitor.”

Across the floor, the British men gushed even more for their silver medals, backing up their London Olympic bronze finish.

“Everyone’s always been asking me how good can we get?” Two-time Olympian Louis Smith said in a press conference. “Today has been a perfect display of how we can knock them down as a team and just show what we are capable of.”

Dethroned China, which had rallied for bronze, already had their Li Ning jackets zipped up and offered little more than blank stares.

“It’s a warning for all of us,” Zhang Chenglong said, according to The Associated Press. “Because it’s a competition, there are always successes and failures. No one can be the forever winner.”

The U.S. men, missing their three best gymnasts from 2014 due to injuries, plummeted from second place going into the final of six rotations to place fifth, as they had in qualifying and as they had in disappointing fashion at the Olympics. Their final rotation free-fall wasn’t shocking given their last three routines came on pommel horse, long their Achilles’ heel.

The Japan victory was a little more of a surprise given the history books.

China had relegated Japan to silver at the previous five World Championships and the last two Olympics, after Japan took the 2004 Olympic title. The Chinese were starting to close in on the greatest dynasty in gymnastics history, that of Japan, which won every Olympic and World team title from 1960 through 1978.

China, which had qualified second into this final, was not at its best Wednesday night. Zhang went out of bounds on floor exercise on the first rotation. Lin Chaopan nearly fell off the pommel horse on the second, and then Xiao Ruoteng did come off of it.

The Chinese were in seventh place after six of 18 routines and were fortunate to climb back for the bronze medal. Japan, meanwhile, led wire to wire. Its small lead over the U.S. going into the final two rotations, one tenth, would inevitably balloon with the Americans average at best on floor exercise and so poor on pommel horse.

The U.S. went into the final with a nothing-to-lose mindset, given it was missing the top three all-around finishers from the 2014 P&G Championships — Olympians Sam MikulakJohn Orozco and Jacob Dalton — due to injuries.

In second place after four of six rotations, it led third-place Russia by 1.957 points and fourth-place Great Britain by 2.192 points with six total routines left for each nation.

“I kind of had an idea that we needed to be about 3.5 points above Great Britain or Russia to be a possibility of a medal,” Alex Naddour said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “So when we were less than that, I knew we had to be as perfect as we could.”

Then two Americans went out of bounds on floor exercise — Donnell Whittenburg and Paul Ruggeri III. The U.S. was still in second going to pommel horse, but now the lead over third-place China was .261 and fourth-place Great Britain was 1.242.

“It was definitely nerve-racking,” Whittenburg said in a USA Gymnastics interview. “We know that it’s not our best event.”

Olympic all-around bronze medalist Danell Leyva led off pommel horse with two major leg form breaks and a messy swing up to a handstand before his dismount. His 13.1 took the U.S. out of the medals.

“I was a little upset at myself,” Leyva said in USA Gymnastics interview.

Whittenburg followed with a 13.866, further ensuring they’d be off the podium. Those were the only two U.S. routines of the night that scored below 14.

The fifth place marked the U.S.’ lowest finish at Worlds since it was 13th in 2006.

But there is hope. The team will undoubtedly be better in 2016, with the returns of Mikulak (stronger on pommel horse than Leyva and Whittenburg), Dalton (the 2013 World silver medalist on floor) and Orozco (who is best on parallel bars and high bar). They’ll vie to make a five-man Olympic team.

In Glasgow, Leyva was fourth in all-around qualifying and could earn a medal in that final Friday, but Uchimura will be favored to make it six straight there, especially with the weight of team expectations off his shoulders.

The World Championships continue with the women’s all-around final Thursday, featuring Simone Biles going for an unprecedented third straight title and Olympic champion Gabby Douglas.

NBC Olympics researcher Amanda Doyle contributed to this report from Glasgow.

MORE GYMNASTICS: World Championships broadcast schedule

MEN’S TEAM FINAL
GOLD: Japan — 270.818

SILVER: Great Britain — 270.345
BRONZE: China — 269.959
4. Russia — 268.362
5. United States — 267.853
6. Switzerland — 261.660
7. South Korea — 260.035
8. Brazil — 259.577

*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that China was first in qualifying.

How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with older veterans — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team.

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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U.S., China set for FIBA Women’s World Cup gold-medal game

FIBA Women's World Cup Basketball
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SYDNEY — Breanna Stewart and the United States used a dominant defensive effort to beat Canada and reach the gold-medal game of the FIBA Women’s World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Stewart scored 17 points and the Americans raced out to an early lead to put away Canada 83-43 on Friday, reaching a Saturday gold-medal game with China. The 43 points was the fewest scored in a semifinal game in World Cup history.

“Canada has been playing really well all tournament and the goal was just to come out there and really limit them,” said U.S. forward Alyssa Thomas. “We were really locked in from the jump with our game plan.”

China edged host Australia 61-59 in the later semifinal to reach its first global championship game since the 1994 Worlds, the last time it won a medal of any color. The U.S. beat China 77-63 in group play last Saturday, the Americans’ closest game of the tournament.

“Our goal was to to win a gold medal and we’re in position to do that,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The U.S. (7-0), which is on a record pace for points and margin of victory in the tournament, took control of the game early scoring the first 15 points. The Americans contested every shot on the defensive end as the Canadians missed their first nine attempts from the field. On the offensive end, Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Thomas basically got any shot they wanted.

“I think after that punch, it really took the air out of them,” Thomas said. “They didn’t know what to do with their offense anymore after that.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

Laeticia Amihere, who plays at South Carolina for former U.S. coach Dawn Staley, finally got Canada on the board nearly 5 minutes into the game making a driving layup.

By the end of the quarter the U.S. led 27-7. Canada had committed four turnovers — the same number the team had against Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals which was the lowest total in a game in 30 years.

The Americans were up 45-21 at the half and the lead kept expanding in the final 20 minutes. The win was the biggest margin for the U.S. in the medal round topping the 36-point victory over Spain in the 2010 World Cup.

Canada (5-2) advanced to the medal round for the first time since 1986 and has a chance to win its first medal since taking the bronze that year.

“We didn’t get it done today, but what we’re going to do is take this with what we learned today and how we can turn it up tomorrow,” Canada captain Natalie Achonwa said. “It’s still a game for a medal and it’s just as important for us.”

The U.S. has won seven of the eight meetings with Canada in the World Cup, although the last one came in 2010. The lone victory for Canada came in 1975.

The victory was the 29th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86. This is only the second time in the Americans’ storied history they’ve reached four consecutive gold-medal contests. They also did it from 1979-90, winning three times.

This U.S. team, which has so many new faces on it, is on pace to break many of the team’s records that include scoring margin and points per game. The Americans also continued to dominate the paint even without 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 55-24.

Amihere led Canada with eight points.

RECORD BREAKING

The low point total broke the mark of 53 that South Korea scored against Russia in 2002.

“We’re starting to build that identity,” Wilson said of the defensive effort. “We’re quick and scrappy and I think that’s our identity.”

The U.S. is averaging 101 points a game. The team’s best mark ever coming into the tournament was 99.1 set in 1994.

STILL RECOVERING

Kahleah Copper sat out after injuring her left hip in the win over Serbia in the quarterfinals. Copper landed hard on her hip driving to the basket and had to be helped off the court. She hopes to play on Saturday. Betnijah Laney, who also got hurt in the Serbia game, did play against Canada.

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