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 Moore, Sylvia 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.”
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