Grand Prix Final pairs’ preview: Russian revival or China’s run to Beijing?

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It’s been six years since mighty Russia last won a world title in pairs’ figure skating, five years since its last Olympic crown and three since Russians topped a Grand Prix Final podium. And last season, Russia failed to win the European title for the first time in eight years.

“They were kind of left with no one,” after 2014 Olympic champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov stepped away, and subsequent teams failed to consistently win at the highest level, said Johnny Weir, NBC Sports analyst and noted aficionado of all things Russia.

That can change leading into the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, perhaps beginning at this week’s Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy. It’s the most exclusive event in skating featuring the world’s top six teams. It’s near the midpoint of the Olympic cycle, prime time for new blood to circulate.

Enter Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy. They are 17 and 19 years old, respectively, and own the world’s highest score this season after sweeping their Grand Prix Series starts. Russia qualified three pairs into the Final, all with an average age in the teens.

They represent what Russia hopes is a new era. Olympics and world championships came and went with Germans, Canadians and Chinese relegating the likes of Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov and Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov to silver or bronze medals.

“So [Russia] were left with these junior teams who aren’t always reliable,” Weir said. “When you’re a junior skater, you’re still finding your legs and learning how to compete at a high level. You aren’t always as reliable as a seasoned veteran. What I think is so exciting about the young teams coming up is that they’ve all shown they can carry the torch for Russia. It’s an exciting place for Russia to be, especially not far away from the next Olympic Games.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL PREVIEWS: Nathan Chen | Yuzuru Hanyu | Alysa Liu
Women | Pairs | TV/Stream Schedule | Entrants

Boikova and Kozlovskiy could become the youngest pairs’ champions in Grand Prix Final history, and the youngest at any global competition of this caliber since the legendary Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergey Grinkov at the 1987 World Championships.

Weir likes Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, who went undefeated on the junior circuit last season and won their senior Grand Prix debut in November.

“They have a nice, powerful way of performing, very St. Petersburg, if I can put it that way and people will understand,” he said. “There’s a very big difference, artistically, between Moscow school of skating and St. Petersburg school of skating. That power and that presence is definitely evident.”

Standing in their way are Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, undefeated since taking silver at the PyeongChang Olympics despite missing the 2018 Grand Prix season due to Sui’s stress fracture in her right foot.

Sui and Han also swept their Grand Prix starts with a higher average score than Boikova and Kozlovskiy. Weir and fellow NBC Sports analyst Tara Lipinski said they are the favorites this week.

“Sui and Han are in a class of their own,” Lipinski said. “They set themselves apart in their consistency and their maturity. Going up against these youngsters, I think it’s clear that the chemistry they’ve developed over the years together and that the confidence they have in their skating is superior to anyone else in the field. Obviously, people can be competitive with them at the final, but they would have to have major errors.

“Clearly, they have one goal, and that’s to win Beijing [2022 Olympics], which I think they’re on the road to.”

But the sheer depth of Russian pairs’ could win out by the Winter Games. Russia qualified the top four pairs into each of the last two Junior Grand Prix Finals, plus earned every medal at the last two junior worlds.

“Russia could technically be looking at [2022 Olympic] sweeps in ladies and, possibly, pairs, should these junior teams that have just come up continue to develop,” Weir said.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years, though Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier became the first Americans to earn medals in both of their Grand Prix starts since 2015.

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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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

FIBA Women's World Cup
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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 vs. Serbia Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada vs. Puerto Rico Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China vs. France Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia vs. Belgium Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA vs. Canada Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China vs. Semifinals
11 p.m. Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. Final

U.S. into FIBA World Cup semifinals after trailing, triple-double watch

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SYDNEY — Alyssa Thomas and her United States teammates were tested for the first time in the World Cup by a physical Serbia team.

After a slow start, the Americans used a dominant run spanning the half to take control of the game and reach the semifinals again.

Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists to help the U.S. beat Serbia 88-55 in the quarterfinals of the women’s World Cup on Thursday.

“I think you expect every team’s best punch in the first quarter,” Thomas said. “We just had to settle into the game and once we settled in, then we were really able to break away.”

Kelsey Plum scored 17 points and A’ja Wilson added 15 to lead the Americans (6-0) into the semifinals.

“They played super physical, more physical than we’ve seen the entire tournament,” Plum said. “Credit to them. I felt that early-on their pressure bothered us a little bit, but we were able to kind of get under control.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

The Americans had run through pool play, winning by 46.2 points per game and hadn’t faced any kind of challenge. Serbia (3-2) wasn’t afraid though, going right at the U.S. The Serbians scored the first basket of the game — marking the first time the Americans trailed in the tournament.

It was back-and-forth for the first 17 minutes, with the U.S. failing to go on any major run. Then, with 2:59 left in the half and the U.S. up by five, Kahleah Copper drove to the basket and was fouled. She landed hard on her hip and had to be helped off the court by the U.S. training staff. Copper, who has been a sparkplug for the U.S. in her first tournament, didn’t return.

“It’s too early to tell,” Reeve said of the extent of Copper’s injury. “We’re getting her some imaging and we’ll have information later.”

Plum replaced Cooper and hit the two free throws, starting a 12-0 run to close the half as the Americans led 50-33 at the break. Thomas had 13 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals in the opening 20 minutes.

The U.S. extended its run to 20 straight points in the third quarter before Serbia finally ended a nearly 8 1/2 minutes drought with a 3-pointer by Yvonne Anderson. That cut the deficit to 22 points. Serbia didn’t get much closer after that.

Anderson led Serbia with 14 points.

Betnijah Laney went down hard early in the fourth quarter on a put-back. She left the game and sat on the bench for the rest of the game.

“She took a hard fall,” Reeve said. “She was in the locker room afterwards and I think in her case it was a little more of it took the wind out of her.”

The victory was the 28th 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.

After going unbeaten in pool play again, the U.S. reached at least the semifinals for the 12th consecutive tournament, dating to 1975. That year completed a cycle in which the Americans lost 14 games combined in four tournaments. They’ve only lost five games since.

PICASSO IT WAS NOT

The U.S. had dominated the paint even without Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 60.8-24.4 in pool play. Serbia held a 20-16 advantage at the half and ended up outscoring the Americans 28-26 in the game by constantly having two or three players inside to clog up the middle.

“It’s one of those things you got to live with,” Wilson said. “Hopefully these next couple of games we can get back to owning the paint. Serbia did a great job of locking it down.

TRIPLE-DOUBLE WATCH

Thomas, who had a triple-double in each of the last two games in the WNBA Finals, fell just short again of getting the first one at the World Cup since Erika Dobrovicova in 1994 for the Slovak Republic against Spain. Assists and rebounds weren’t kept before 1994. Thomas had 14 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in the opener against Belgium.

TIP-INS

Jewell Loyd returned to the U.S. starting lineup a game after resting according to the team. She had eight points.

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