The U.S. team extended its FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup winning streak to 20 straight and will face Belgium in Saturday's semifinal round.
Sue Bird provided a motivational halftime speech, Breanna Stewart scored a game-high 19 points and the United States overcame a sluggish first half to blow out Nigeria 71-40 in Friday’s quarterfinal at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in San Cristobal de la Laguna, Spain.
Nigeria, the first African nation to reach a quarterfinal in the World Cup’s 65-year history, held the U.S. team to nine points in the first quarter and led 20-11 early in the second due in part to a pestering defense that forced 23 turnovers.
It was the largest deficit in four tournament games for the United States, which entered Friday’s contest averaging 96.3 points.
At the break, the U.S. team led 27-23 when the 37-year-old Storm guard laid out the new game plan for the second half.
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“Sue pretty much took over halftime,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “She gave us direction on both ends of the court, but more specifically directions of character in terms of how we’re playing out there.”
Said Bird: “We just had to have a talk and be like, ‘Guys, listen, we have to help each other. We can’t leave anybody on an island out there. We have to help each other.’ And once we got that out in the open, I think we did a better job in the second half.”
The U.S. team took control of the game with a 14-4 run to begin the third quarter and Nigeria fell apart in the fourth while being outscored 25-5.
“Nigeria’s a really tough team,” said Bird, who finished with six points, five assists and four rebounds. “They play hard for 40 minutes, and at the start of the game we were just a little out of sorts, trying to deal with their pressure, trying to get going. So, even though we didn’t get out to the best start, the good news is that we responded, individually, collectively. So, once the third quarter rolled around, we got into a little bit of a comfort zone, and the rest is history.”
The second-half adjustments helped the United States outscore Nigeria 44-17 and run its World Cup winning streak to 20 games.
Tina Charles grabbed a World Cup personal-best 15 rebounds to help the United States outrebound Nigeria, 62-32. A’ja Wilson added 11 points and six rebounds.
Storm standout Stewart, the WNBA most valuable player in the regular season and the Finals, shined brightest while connecting on 7 of 8 shots, including two three-pointers. She also had five assists.
“Stewie’s been tremendous for us,” U.S. coach Dawn Staley said. “So, Stewie’s someone we need on the floor a lot. We had to be conscious of getting her in and out of basketball games. I think she played the longest stretch of any player throughout the game, but that was out of necessity.”
In her second World Cup with the national team, Stewart has led the United States (4-0) in scoring in three games during the tournament.
“When I look back four years ago, … I didn’t play much,” Stewart said. “I was new to the national team at that level and was just trying to absorb as much as I could because I knew that two years later we had the Olympics, four years later we had the World Cup, and I wanted to be able to make an impact. I wanted my game to continue to grow and help the United States win as many gold medals as possible.“
The U.S. team will face Belgium, a 86-65 winner over France, in Saturday’s semifinal. Australia advanced with a 83-42 victory over China and will meet Spain in the semis.