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U.S. crushes Australia for FIBA World Cup three-peat, Olympic berth

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There were reasons to believe the dominant U.S. women’s basketball team would be challenged by Australia in the FIBA World Cup final.

The Americans’ slow starts in the last two games against Nigeria (trailed 17-9 after one quarter) and Belgium (behind 26-21 after the first). Australia’s play this tournament, winning its five games by an average of 26.8 points (5.8 greater than the U.S.’ margin).

Australian superstar Liz Cambage — a tournament-leading 27.2 points per game on 68 percent shooting for the WNBA scoring leader. The names missing from the U.S. roster — Maya MooreSylvia Fowles and Candace Parker, most notably.

Doubts faded in the first three minutes.

The Americans ran out 10-0. Australia missed its first eight shots in Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.

The U.S., despite shooting just 25 percent in the first half, never ceded the lead en route to a 73-56 win. It’s the first nation to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic tournament.

The U.S. three-peated as world champion for the first time. Semifinal upsets in 1994 and 2006 torpedoed previous attempts.

“It’s probably been the most competitive World Cup we’ve ever played in,” said Diana Taurasi, who played in her fourth worlds.

The Americans are undefeated at the Olympics and worlds since that 2006 semifinal loss to Russia — 46 straight victories. They’re now 18-0 against Australia, considered their longtime rival, at the Olympics and worlds. Cambage had a quiet seven points Sunday.

Brittney Griner (15 points) and Taurasi (13) were the top scorers, but Breanna Stewart deserves first mention of the Americans for the tournament. She led the team per game in points (16.3) and minutes (27) and was named MVP.

“Stewie at the start of this year, so we are talking like April, really decided what she wanted to do with her basketball career,” Seattle Storm teammate Sue Bird said, according to USA Basketball. “She wanted to be an MVP. She wanted to win a championship. She wanted to come here and put her mark on USA Basketball.

In 2014, Stewart was last on the team with 1.8 points per game at worlds, mostly there to gain experience as a rising UConn junior. She was also the youngest 2016 Olympian, playing the second-fewest minutes on the team. Now she’s the reigning WNBA MVP and Finals MVP.

“It’s not a bad way to cap things off,” Stewart said, according to USA Basketball, “and now it is time for a little vacation.”

Stewart took Moore’s place in the starting lineup and might not let it go. Moore, who started all 14 games between the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, skipped this World Cup after an exhausting year playing in Europe and then the WNBA.

“This kid played out of position this entire tournament,” Bird said of the 6-foot-4 Stewart. “She was playing the three. Trust me when I tell you, she’ll tell you, too, she ain’t a three.”

Bird, the second-oldest American in a global tournament in the Olympic women’s basketball era (since 1976; Jennifer Gillom, 38 in 2002), broke head coach Dawn Staley‘s record for career World Cup assists.

If Bird makes the 2020 Olympic team (likely given she started all five of her games in Tenerife), she will break Tamika Catchings‘ record as the oldest U.S. Olympic basketball player of either gender.

Both Bird and Taurasi repeated after the game regarding Tokyo 2020: If USA Basketball calls on them, they won’t say no.

“You never know if you’re going to be back,” Bird said, according to USA Basketball. “I really just want to cherish these moments.”

MORE: U.S. volleyball’s ‘Slugger’ goes from coaching to MVP

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Carreira, Ponomarenko understand the depth of U.S. ice dance at nationals

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GREENSBORO, N.C. Heading into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro this week, up-and-coming ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko focused on their “quads” not four-revolution jumps, but still pretty tough to execute.

“(Our coaches) have us doing double run-through weeks, triple run-throughs, even quadruple run-throughs, to make sure we’re fully ready,” Carreira said. “We’re drilling a lot more, so at nationals we go in 100 percent confident.”

Pasquale Camerlengo, who trains the team along with primary coach Igor Shpilband, agreed that the run-up to Greensboro has been grueling for the skaters from Novi, Mich.

“We always plan a week we call the quads, performing (programs) four times,” Camerlengo said. “We’re trying to make them ready physically and work their stamina, to handle their programs in competition, which is a little bit different than in practice. Physically, they’re ready for it.”

Tough practices are just one component of what’s been a challenging but productive sophomore senior season for the two-time world junior medalists, fifth in the U.S. in 2019.

Thus far, they’ve competed at six international competitions, stretching from Lake Placid, N.Y., in August to NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, in late November. Six is a lot, considering other top teams they’ll compete against in Greensboro have competed three to five times so far this season.

“Igor wants to get more experience at the senior level, and also more world points,” Carreira, 19, said. “For that we have to compete. We get out there and compete as much as we can, so our programs feel more trained.”

Those programs – a rhythm dance to Cole Porter’s “It’s Too Darn Hot” and flamenco free dance to “Farrucas” – stretch their abilities far more than last season’s routines. Competing every two weeks or so left little time to make adjustments, so the past six weeks were the key to their preparation for Greensboro.

“We pushed a lot of changes we needed to make until after NHK, to smooth out the programs and really train them,” Ponomarenko, 18, said.

He added that the grueling first half of 2019-20 was a necessary ice dance rite of passage.

“It’s very different from our first season. We really didn’t know what to expect. Now we kind of know where we’re at and how we can improve. We definitely feel the sophomore slump this year, but we just want to compete and keep putting our good performances.”

On paper, Carreira and Ponomarenko’s 2018 Grand Prix results – which included a bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup – look more impressive than the sixth-place finishes they earned at Skate America and NHK this season. But the skaters don’t think the placements tell the full story.

“Last season, results-wise, it might have looked better, because a lot of (top) teams took the Grand Prix season off last season,” Carreira said. “This season, I feel our programs are more difficult and we’re skating better. We want to improve our consistency so that we can compete with the top teams.”

It doesn’t take much to lose points in an ice dance routine, especially on step sequences and “twizzles,” a series of fast rotations moving across the ice. A few slips here – including a small mistake on their twizzles in the rhythm dance at Skate America – can easily drop teams out of the top group.

“They always have the feeling they could do more,” Camerlengo said. “But the season is a progression. They’re getting better and better. That’s the goal, to have them (be) more reliable.”

“They need to do what they’re capable of,” he added. “They just have to do what they’ve learned, with no fear, and just go for it.”

In Greensboro, Carreira and Ponomarenko will have to throw caution to the wind to grab one of the three U.S. ice dance spots at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships in Montreal this March.

With Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates, very likely battling for gold, the Michigan skaters have their sights set on bronze. It’s a herculean task, considering the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, qualified for the Grand Prix Final last season and notched career-best scores at Skate Canada this fall.

All three of those teams train together in Montreal. 

But Carreira and Ponomarenko think their programs, strengthened by adjustments and all of those quadruple run-throughs, give them a fighting chance.

“(A bronze medal) is more realistic now than last season,” Carreira said.

“I believe we’ve really grown as skaters,” Ponomarenko said. “Our programs are much more difficult, which has really helped us improve. I believe the podium at nationals is very reasonable. It could be achieved with some good skating.”

Other teams could be in the mix. Last season, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter placed a strong fourth, but injuries forced them to withdraw from one of their Grand Prix events this fall. A new pairing, Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, has gelled quickly, winning two medals at Challenger Series international events.

“The level of U.S. ice dance level is high, the depth in the U.S. is really the top worldwide,” Camerlengo said. “But the podium, it is reasonable for Christina and Anthony. They have been working hard and they have a very good level to fight for the medal. We’ll see how they will perform here. They’re ready for it.”

Not all of the team’s challenges are on the ice. The Montreal-born Carreira – who has lived and trained in Novi since she was 13 – faces hurdles gaining her U.S. citizenship, without which the couple cannot compete at the Olympics. Last May, she petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” under the immigration code, which would help smooth the way for legal permanent residency status. She was denied and filed suit against the USCIS, later dropping the action.

Carreira is still working to achieve a pathway to U.S. citizenship and prefers not to discuss the issue.

“I can’t really say anything,” she said. “We’re working on it, we’re hoping for the best.”

Citizenship issues never entered the skaters’ minds when they teamed up in the spring of 2014. Ponomarenko and his parents, 1988 Olympic ice dance champions Marina Klimova and Sergei Ponomarenko, had long admired Carreira’s skating. When he and his former partner Sarah Feng split after the 2014 U.S. Championships, he tried out with Carreira in Novi.

“We really worked well together from the beginning,” Ponomarenko said. “I had wanted to skate with Christina for a really long time even before getting together, so it was no-brainer. The bump in the road (citizenship) can be worked through.”

“There were so many good factors it would be, I think, stupid to let something that can be fixed get in the way of (our partnership),” Carreira said. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The ice dance competition in Greensboro kicks off with the rhythm dance on Friday afternoon, with medalists decided with the free dance on Saturday night.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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Coronavirus forces Olympic soccer and boxing qualifiers to move

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Olympic qualifying events in two sports were moved from the Chinese city of Wuhan on Wednesday because of an outbreak of a deadly viral illness.

A four-nation Asian qualifying group for the women’s soccer tournament was switched from the city at the center of the health scare to Nanjing.

The Asia-Oceania boxing qualifying tournament scheduled for Feb. 3-14 in Wuhan was cancelled. No new plans were announced.

The decisions followed Chinese health authorities telling people in Wuhan to avoid crowds and public gatherings.

The Asian Football Confederation said the round-robin group — featuring host China, Australia, Taiwan and Thailand — will be played on Feb. 3-9, retaining the same dates, in Nanjing.

More than 500 people have been infected and at least 17 killed since the outbreak emerged last month. The illness comes from a newly identified type of coronavirus.

Cases have also been reported in the United States, Japan, South Korea and Thailand. All involve people from Wuhan or who recently traveled there.

In the soccer qualifiers in China, two teams advance to a four-nation playoff round in March. That will decide which two teams from Asia join host Japan at the Tokyo Olympics.

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