Donnell Whittenburg leads bunched crowd at P&G Championships

Donnell Whittenburg
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HARTFORD, Conn. — Donnell Whittenburg is halfway to his first U.S. all-around title and one-quarter of the way to his first Olympic team.

Whittenburg, the Baltimore native with a linebacker build, posted a six-event score of 89.9 points on the first of two days of competition at the P&G Championships on Friday night. He edged three-time reigning U.S. all-around champion and 2012 Olympian Sam Mikulak by .05, with the next five gymnasts within another point.

Whittenburg was in 32nd place after the first rotation due to starting off on his weakest (yet favorite) event, pommel horse. But he followed that up with the highest score of any gymnast on any apparatus on still rings, a 15.95, and jumped past Mikulak and Jacob Dalton in the sixth and final rotation.

“There’s still more room for improvement, but, today, just glad to get through the first day with clean sets,” said Whittenburg, who earlier this year added to his tattoo collection by spending two hours getting the entire John 3:16 verse inked on his bulging left bicep.

London Olympians Dalton, John Orozco and Danell Leyva are fourth, 11th and 12th, respectively. Full standings are here.

The P&G Championships conclude Sunday (1-4 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Live Extra), after the U.S. women compete in the Secret Classic in Hartford on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, Live Extra).

The P&G Championships are one of two Olympic men’s selection meets, followed by the U.S. Olympic Trials in St. Louis in three weeks. The five-man Olympic team will be named after trials.

A gymnast can clinch an Olympic berth by finishing in the top two in the all-around and the top three in three of the six events in combined standings after four days of competition at the P&G Championships and Olympic Trials.

If Friday’s scores repeat Sunday and at Olympic Trials, Mikulak will automatically qualify for his second Olympic team in three weeks, and Whittenburg will undoubtedly prove he should go to Rio, too.

What a four-year journey it has been for Whittenburg, who was raised by a single mother with three siblings. He won this meet in 2012, in the junior division, that is, at age 17, after being eighth in 2011.

Whittenburg moved up to the senior ranks and finished 13th in the 2013 P&G Championships all-around. Then fourth in 2014. And second in 2015. He capped last year with his first individual World Championships medal, bronze on vault, a power event that lends itself to his musclebound explosiveness.

“He kind of showed up on the scene, like, oh man, this kid’s really good,” Dalton said. “He’s really improved. He’s cleaned things up, but just his difficulty is insane. He’s got a lot of hard skills that he makes look easy.”

Mikulak, coming back from a partially torn Achilles that kept him out 2015 Worlds, would have had the first-day lead if not for his last step of the night. He stumbled out of bounds on floor exercise.

“If I hit all my routines on Sunday, and I still lose, then so be it,” said Mikulak, who could become the fifth man to win four straight U.S. all-around titles. “As long as I’m hitting my sets, I’m a happy man.”

Orozco and Leyva, the two best U.S. gymnasts this time four years ago, could miss the five-man team for Rio if they repeat their Friday performances on Sunday and at the Olympic Trials. They didn’t seem too worried, commiserating by jokingly high-fiving after flawed performances.

“I was tired by the end of it,” said Leyva, who fell off high bar, a silver-medal event for him at the 2015 World Championships.

Orozco, who fell off the pommel horse to open his night, said he made a novice mistake earlier Friday by not eating enough.

“I’ve been taking my diet super seriously, and I thought, OK, I want to be lean and light, so I’m going to have two pieces of chicken and some asparagus,” said Orozco, who shaved his head earlier this spring and is coming back from a second torn right Achilles last year. “It got me through the warm-ups, but the minute I started competing, I jumped up on pommel [horse], and halfway through my routine I started cramping.”

MORE: Biles, Douglas ease into Olympic qualifying meets

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

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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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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

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The U.S. goes for its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headline a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, includes neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team includes nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 52 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The field also includes host Australia, the U.S.’ former primary rival, and Olympic silver medalist Japan.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), isn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China 71, Australia 69 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia vs. Canada Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA vs. China Gold-Medal Game