Cut four years ago, Alex Carpenter, Megan Bozek battled back to make Olympic team

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On a mid-December day in a Blaine, Minnesota, lounge, USA Hockey women’s national team director Katie Million addressed the player group that was left after the final cuts.

Congratulations, this is the Olympic team.

That’s how Megan Bozek, a 30-year-old defender from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, remembered it.

Bozek immediately looked across the room at Alex Carpenter, a 27-year-old forward from North Reading, Massachusetts. Carpenter reciprocated.

“The two of us, in particular, share a certain perspective,” Carpenter said.

Bozek and Carpenter became the first U.S. women’s hockey players to make an Olympic team, get cut from the next team and come back to make the following team.

“The average person doesn’t understand what type of sacrifice and commitment that takes,” said Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, who played with Bozek and Carpenter at the 2014 Olympics, where the U.S. took silver in an overtime loss to Canada. “There’s not many people who understand the journey.”

Start on May 5, 2017. USA Hockey named the women’s national team for the 2018 Olympic run-up. The roster size: 23 players, including Bozek and Carpenter. The Olympic roster size: 23 players. It appeared all of them would be going to South Korea in nine months’ time.

But, in a move reminiscent of Herb Brooks, three skaters were added to the national team in October and November: Cayla Barnes, a Boston College freshman, Haley Skarupa, a forward who played on the previous three world championship teams, and defender Sidney Morin, a pro playing in Sweden who had never suited up for the senior national team.

Suddenly, the team would have to make three cuts. First up was forward Annie Pankowski.

Then, in December 2017, Bozek sat in the lobby of the team residency and received a tap on the shoulder from an assistant coach.

“I knew right then and there that it wasn’t a good sign,” Bozek said. “It’s humiliating, embarrassing.”

Bozek said she was blindsided by the news, based on conversations she had with coaches throughout the autumn residency period.

“I had no inclination that this is the way that they were leaning,” she said. “And as that conversation then came into play, when it [getting cut] was actually happening, you’re speechless, you don’t know what to say, you have every emotion going through your body.”

The meeting ended. Bozek walked back to her apartment. Then she got a call from Carpenter, who had just gone through the same process, separately. Carpenter, like Bozek, didn’t have much to say when she got cut.

“I just wanted to get away from where we were and head home and be surrounded by my family and friends,” she said.

Lamoureux-Davidson said they were the most surprising cuts of her decade-long career with the national team.

“In our view, neither of those two should have gone home,” Lamoureux-Davidson and her twin sister, Monique Lamoureux-Morando, wrote in their book, “Dare to Make History.” The twins, veteran leaders, would have spoken up and asked questions, but their places on the team were in jeopardy that autumn, too.

Bozek flew to Toronto and joined the CWHL’s Markham Thunder mid-season. Carpenter ended up in China, joining the CWHL club Kunlun Red Star. Her dad, longtime NHL player Bobby Carpenter, coached the Kunlun men’s team that season.

Carpenter didn’t watch the 2018 Olympic women’s hockey final, which the U.S. won over Canada in a shootout for its first gold since women’s hockey’s debut in 1998. Her club had a practice at the same time.

“Happy for them,” Carpenter said of the Olympic team. “Lots of my friends that I’ve known for a long time.”

Bozek did watch the epic final, with friends in Toronto early in the morning.

“It makes me appreciate those girls [who won gold] that much more, because a lot of those girls are my best friends,” she said. “And I knew that Alex and I helped them get to the position that they were in, whether we were on that roster or not. We trained with them every single day, went to battle with them every single day. And you’re a big part of that, and it’s something that we can’t forget.”

The U.S. women’s national team coaching staff turned over after Olympics, as usual. Both Bozek and Carpenter were invited back into the program for camps and made every world championship team in this Olympic cycle.

“I can speak for myself, and I think also speak for Alex, that the heartbreak that we felt in 2018 just gave us more motivation to come back in and try to prove that we still deserve a spot on this team,” Bozek said.

Carpenter, the U.S.’ leading goal scorer at the 2014 Olympics, then scored both U.S. goals in the 2021 World Championship final, an overtime loss to Canada.

For her, having then-head coach Bob Corkum personally call her and invite her back for a training camp three years ago marked a turning point in her career.

“Seeing that I was wanted in this program,” she said.

In 2019, Bozek joined Carpenter’s club team. They played together in China, and then in Russia after the team relocated after Covid hit. Now, they’ll go back to China together, looking for the gold medal that all of their teammates brought home four years ago.

“Getting to be on this journey with her,” Bozek said, “just brings me back to all the great memories we’ve had, all the tough memories we’ve had, and that we’re making right now and about to make next month.”

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

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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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