Photo Credit: USA Basketball
KLAIPEDA, Lithuania - Behind game-highs of 23 points and eight rebounds from Breanna Stewart (Connecticut / North Syracuse, N.Y.), the 2013 USA U19 World Championship Team (8-0) knocked off a strong Australia (6-2) team in the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championship semifinal contest on Saturday night in Klaipeda, Lithuania. The USA will face France (7-1) on Sunday (1:15 p.m. EDT) in an attempt to capture a fifth-straight FIBA U19 World Championship gold medal. The gold medal game will be streamed live on ESPN3.
Stewart, who was named to the five-member all-tournament team at the 2011 FIBA U19 Worlds, scored 14 points, including the first nine, in a 21-0 run that capped the first half and virtually put the game away, 38-20.
While the USA is going for its sixth gold medal overall at the U19 Worlds, France will come away with its first medal of any color in its fifth U19 appearance. Previously France finished 5th in 2001, 6th in 2006 and 2011, and 7th in 2009.
Australia will face Spain (7-1), which lost to France 62-58 earlier in the evening, in Sunday's bronze medal game, also being streamed on ESPN3 (11 a.m. EDT).
"Australia is just so good and they have incredible half-court execution," said USA U19 and University of Miami head coach Katie Meier. "We were really struggling to score and we couldn't. Therefore, we had to run back and play half court defense. The game was not going in our favor at all. As soon as we had an opportunity to throw in a little press and trapping action, which requires scoring, once we were able to start scoring just a little, we were able to get into that."
In a first quarter that saw four knotted scores, baskets were hard to come by. Neither team was able to easily convert on baskets, with Australia hitting 33.3 percent and the U.S. held to 27.7 percent. Holding a narrow 11-9 lead, the USA sent Australia to the line at 1:53. Hitting both, the Aussies managed to hold the Americans scoreless and with six seconds left in the quarter, made good on a traditional 3-point play to go up 14-11 at the break.
"We weren't pushing the ball well (in the first quarter)," said Moriah Jefferson (Connecticut / Glenn Heights, Texas). "We were playing their game by slowing it down and we weren't going into our offense right. Once we got our tempo up and started pushing the ball, we started getting shot after shot."
With the U.S. holding a slim 15-14 lead in the second quarter Australia got a pair of layups to retake the lead, 18-16 at 8:23. Meier quickly called a time out to regroup. Neither team was able to score for nearly two minutes when Nia Coffey (Hopkins H.S. / Minneapolis, Minn.) went to the hoop to make it 18-17, but with exactly 6:00 to play in the half, Australia answered to up its lead to three, 20-17.
That's about the time Stewart went to work on a 9-0 run. She swished in a pair from the line at 5:46 and after Morgan Tuck (Connecticut / Bolingbrook, Ill.) grabbed the board on the other end, Coffey found Stewart open and she hit a jumper to give the defending U19 champs a 21-20 lead and the U.S. never again trailed.
On Australia's next possession, Stewart blocked a shot, grabbed the board, but an Aussie knocked it out of her hands and out of bounds. Australia's coach called a time out hoping to get her team back on track, but it didn't work.
Stewart took another feed from Coffey, then it was Linnae Harper's (Whitney Young H.S. / Chicago, Ill.) turn to feed the hot hands of Stewart, who was wide-open for a 3-pointer.
Australia had no answer for the USA's well-oiled defensive machine and after a steal by Jefferson, which resulted in a Harper jumper, and another bucket from Stewart, Australia called a second timeout, trailing 30-20 with 2:13 remaining in the half.
That didn't change things or stop the U.S., which got a 3-pointer from Stewart on its next possession. Following a Coffey steal and layup, Kelsey Plum (La Jolla Country Day / Poway, Calif.) sunk a 3-pointer to send the red, white and blue into the midway break with a comfortable 38-20 advantage.
"Obviously that second quarter, that was one of the most thrilling moments in coaching ever," said Meier. "That run, that 21-0 run was just so hard earned. It didn't come easy. They didn't cough up the ball. Kids were covering and fighting and pursing balls. It was really, really tough. We played very, very hard in that stretch."
By halftime, the USA already forced 11 turnovers, 10 of which were steals, and converted them into 10 points. After losing the rebounding battle in the first quarter 14-9, the U.S. stepped up their defense of the glass and outrebounded Australia 17-8 in the second quarter.
"My teammates did a really good job of getting me open," said Stewart, who has now scored 136 points in the USA's first eight games and just moved past Diana Taurasi (135) to No. 3 on the USA's all-time U19 scoring list, behind Maya Moore (147) and Jantel Lavender (144). "At that time I wanted to try and get us going as a team. Obviously any player could have done it on a team. I just made shots. People seemed to follow and it seemed to get us a pretty big lead."
Australia kept pace in the second half, but never threatened, as the USA won the third quarter 19-17 and the fourth quarter 20-17.
Tuck finished as the USA's second-leading scorer and rebounder with nine points and seven points, while Harper and Alexis Jones (Duke / Irving, Texas) dished out five assists apiece and Jefferson had four of the USA's 22 assists.
The USA was without the services for most of the first half of A'ja Wilson (Heathwood Hall H.S / Hopkins, S.C.) and Bashaara Graves (Tennessee / Clarksville, Tenn.) picked up their second fouls at 9:21 and 8:57, respectively, and were out for the remainder of the half.
Stephanie Talbot scored a team-high 11 points for her side.
The USA finished the game hitting an even 40 percent of its field goals, while Australia made 34.4 percent. The USA won the battle of the boards by a 48-39 margin and turned the ball over just 13 times compared to Australia's 19.
While Stewart needs 12 points to finish as the USA's all-time U19 single-competition scoring leader, she is poised to become the top 3-point percentage leader as she is shooting 57.9 percent and Cappie Pondexter hit 57.1 percent in 2001. The current USA assist record for U19 World Championships is 39 by Ariel Massengale, which could be eclipsed by Jones, who has 36, or Harper, who has 31.
"When we played them, it was really tough," said Harper on her team's gold medal game opponent. "But, we bounced back against Japan and Australia. I think the game is going to really be a test for us, but I think we're ready mentally and physically to be able to win the game."
In classification semifinal games for 5th-8th places, Brazil (5-3) defeated Canada (3-5) 70-63, while China (5-3) downed Japan 3-5) 70-49. Russia (4-4) edged out the Netherlands (2-6) 83-80 to finish in 9th place, while Serbia (2-6) picked off host Lithuania (1-7) 84-36 for 11th place.
Assisting Meier and the U19 squad are collegiate head coaches Nikki Caldwell of Louisiana State University and Kelly Graves of Gonzaga University.
Originally known as the FIBA Junior World Championship, the tournament was held every four years starting in 1985. FIBA changed its calendar in 2006 and now conducts the U19 World Championship every other year. USA women's teams are now 65-12 in the U19/Junior World Championships, capturing a fourth-consecutive gold medal with an 8-1 record most recently in 2011. The U.S. has claimed five of the last six U19/Junior World Championship gold medals and boasts a 53-4 record over that span, to include the 8-0 slate at the 2013 U19 Worlds.