U.S. men’s rugby sevens team conquers all with world’s best player sealed shut

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In one of the remarkable Olympic sports rises this four-year cycle, the U.S. men’s rugby sevens team didn’t just break into the top five in the world. They are ranked No. 1 in the World Series standings with two tournaments left this season, poised to clinch a Tokyo 2020 berth in London this weekend.

Rugby of course has a history beyond its Olympic revival. Sevens debuted in Rio, some 92 years after the more traditional 15-a-side rugby last appeared at the Games in Paris in 1924.

Rugby was born in the eponymous England town in 1823. Rugby sevens in Scotland later that century. The World Series, a season of global tournaments, debuted in 1999. New Zealand’s All Blacks won 12 of those first 15 annual titles. Then Fiji’s men captured gold in Rio.

The U.S.’ best finish in the first 15 World Series was 10th.

When Englishman Mike Friday was hired as head coach in October 2014, the Americans appeared long shots to qualify for the 12-team Rio Olympic tournament. They were coming off a 13th-place season. It looked like Canada, ranked sixth in the world, would likely grab the lone automatic North American Olympic berth.

The U.S. immediately moved into the top 10 under Friday, supplanted Canada and did get to Brazil.

But the red, white and blue exited the Olympics in heartbreaking fashion. Captain Madison Hughes missed a late two-point conversion attempt from out wide against Fiji in the group finale. Had he made it, the Americans still would have lost to the Fijians, but they would have been in position to sneak into the quarterfinals by one in tiebreaking point differential. Instead, they finished ninth.

Perry Baker was helpless in those defining moments, on the sideline for that last minute against Fiji while still adjusting to his new full-time sport.

Baker was previously, briefly, a Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver. They agreed to terms in July 2011, but Baker was let go after it was discovered in a physical that he had been playing on a torn meniscus. He dabbled in rugby as a teen and after college, too, but didn’t take to it until meeting U.S. director Alex Magleby. It didn’t take long for Magleby to issue this ultimatum: Quit football to join the national team.

Baker accepted, and migrated to the program officially in 2014 at age 27. Fellow football convert and best friend Carlin Isles garnered the lion’s share of the team’s pre-Olympic press, and rightfully so as its leading try scorer in 2014-15.

But Baker, lean for rugby at 6 feet, 1 inch and a listed 180 pounds, boasted a 4.32-second 40-yard dash time of his own and was on the rise. In his second tournament, Baker scored a game-winning try in an upset of Fiji.

By the Olympic season, Baker was the U.S. leader in tries. Then Baker was named the World Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018, becoming the first man to earn the honor twice and completing a rise from sharing a two-bedroom apartment with so many guys that he sometimes slept in his truck. He scaled the rugby world while the U.S. was stuck in fifth and sixth place in the World Series standings, plateaued after the initial leap under Friday.

The U.S. tops the table this season through eight of 10 legs, but Baker can’t pick a turning point for the ascension. His favorite moment actually came last season, when the U.S. won a World Series leg for the second time in history, at home in Las Vegas (and without the injured captain Hughes). Baker had the viral score of that event, an end-to-end sprint in a 19-7 semifinal victory over Fiji.

“That try is going to go down as one of the best of all time,” NBC Olympics analyst Brian Hightower said.

But Baker points earlier in that match, when he ran down fleet-footed Alasio Naduva and prevented a Fijian try. He shared a World Rugby video of the play, which registered Baker’s top-end speed at 23 miles per hour.

Numbers say the low-water mark for the U.S. under Friday came at the start of that 2017-18 season. Baker, after spending part of his summer with the NYPD SWAT team, was kneed in the side of the head in the opening moments of the first match. He was forced to sit the rest of that first tournament following concussion protocol. The U.S. went winless in four matches, its first 0-fer in the World Series in Friday’s four seasons.

Baker also missed the last two tournaments of 2017-18 with a shoulder injury, essentially suiting up for just 60 percent of the season.

He still finished in the top 10 in the World Series in points and the top five in tries. He also proved his worth to fellow players, match officials and commentators who nominated him for World Player of the Year a second straight season. A six-person panel, including selectors from world powers Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and England, ultimately chose Baker for the award.

Baker remembers competitors from New Zealand and South Africa congratulating him at the next World Series stop to open the 2018-19 season. It made him reflect on the last five years.

“Coming from those types of guys from those teams, it was a step back for me, like, wow, I guess I do have more respect than I thought,” said Baker, the third-most-accomplished wide receiver in his family after older brother Dallas (2006 NCAA champion at Florida) and uncle Wes Chandler (four-time Pro Bowler). “You look at my body size. To this day, everyone says you don’t look like a rugby player. Then me being a crossover athlete — I won’t be able to play the game. Things like that. I’m too small. The usual stuff. America doesn’t have a real rugby team. We won’t be good. Just getting to the Eagles [the U.S. team nickname] was really hard. I went through two coaches before Mike Friday came in, and I never got a chance.”

Baker encountered another obstacle at this season’s third World Series stop in New Zealand in January: Tana Fotofili. Baker, carrying the ball, collided violently with the Tongan captain with 44 seconds left of what would be a comfortable 29-7 U.S. win. He curled up on the pitch and was tended to for two minutes before being escorted off.

“I kind of blacked out for a few seconds,” Baker said after watching the replay dozens of times. “All I know is my jaw was in pain.”

He suffered a double broken jaw, but Baker said there was no concussion. Screws and a rubber bracket were drilled into his mouth, which was essentially sealed shut by thick rubber bands. He would be fed by straw the next two weeks. When he first tried to swallow solids, frustration fell over him trying to chew mashed potatoes.

After another two weeks, Baker forced down tiny pieces of chicken, soggied after about 50 chews.

“What would you would feed a baby with two teeth, that’s how I was eating,” he said.

Baker returns to competition Saturday for the start of the World Series stop in London. The U.S. fared well without him and Danny Barrett, its two players who made the all-World Series Dream Team in 2017. Barrett missed the last three tournaments with an injury.

The Americans enter famed Twickenham Stadium leading the World Series standings by a slim three points over Fiji but are 38 points clear of fifth place. The top four after the following stop in Paris clinch Olympic spots. The U.S. would all but seal its Tokyo 2020 berth by advancing out of pool play Saturday.

Baker will trot out eager for contact in his first match action since that broken jaw.

“I’ve talked to his high school football coach several times. If you talk to him, he’ll tell you that Perry was always reluctant to tackle. He didn’t like it. He didn’t want to be in the contact area,” Hightower said.

Baker’s first rugby tackle in a club event years ago was a football-style dive at the legs, an equivalent of an illegal cheap shot in his new sport. He didn’t know any better.

“That really is one of his biggest areas of growth,” Hightower continued. “He’s not going to be the crunching, dominant, drive-you-backwards, highlight-reel hitter, but he’s going to make his tackles now.”

The Americans began the season with a goal of top four and automatic Olympic qualification. Now, Perry says it’s “a burning desire” to be world champions for the first time in the sport’s history.

“There would have been times in the past where they were a little cocky, a bit brazen,” Hightower said. “Now you can just tell the way the players carry themselves. They’re not as boisterous. They quietly go about their job. There’s confidence there when they step on the field. They believe they can win every match they start. That’s a big difference between now and a few years back.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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MORE: Nate Ebner on transition from Olympic rugby back to NFL

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 61, Australia 59 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia vs. Canada Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA vs. China Gold-Medal Game