July 20, 2011 • Puerto Montt, Chile
After three days of trials in Colorado Springs in May, five days of training with 15 USA U19 World Championship Team finalists in Orlando in June, a week of two-a-days last week in Colorado Springs and four days of practices and scrimmages in Puerto Montt, Chile, the 2011 USA Basketball Women’s U19 World Championship Team is ready to take the court on July 21 against Japan.
Three-time defending champs at the FIBA U19 World Championship, which was originally contested every four years and is now played every other year, the U.S. leads the overall medal count with four golds and one bronze medal since the tournament’s inception in 1985. After finishing in fifth place in ’85, and seventh in 1989 and 1993, the USA squad reached the podium for the first time in 1997 – claiming the top spot after nipping Australia 78-74 in overtime in the gold medal game.
The USA is 49-11 all-time in U19 World Championship play. However, from 1997 through the last installment in 2009, the U.S. boasts a 37-3 record, winning gold medals in 1997, 2005, 2007 and 2009; and a bronze medal in 2001. The only other nations to win the tournament were the former Soviet Union, which won the first two in 1985 and 1989, Australia (1993), and the Czech Republic (2001).
Against teams in the 2011 U19s, the U.S. is 27-5. The USA has previously played Australia (4-2), Brazil (2-0), Canada (3-0), China (4-0), France (1-1), Japan (4-0), Russia (5-0) and Spain (4-2). This year marks the first entry in the U19 World Championship for host Chile, Egypt, Italy, Nigeria and Slovenia; while Taiwan competed in 1993, but never played against the USA.
Featured on each of the first five USA U19 World Championship Teams was at least one future Olympian. In 1985, eventual 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Vicki Orr was on the roster. Eventual four-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie and three-time Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley played on the 1989 USA U19 team; three-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Smith and 1996 Olympic gold medalist Rebecca Lobo competed on the 1983 USA squad; the 1997 U.S. U19 team, the first to capture gold, featured two-time Oympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings; whlie the 2001 U19 team had two-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi and 2008 Olympic gold medalist Cappie Pondexter.
Enough of the history lesson, USABasketball.com sat down with this year’s coach, University of Hartford’s Jennifer Rizzotti, to find out what she thought about the USA team and the overall competition prior to the start of the tournament.
What do you expect to see over the first three games against Japan (July 21 at 1:30 p.m. EDT), Russia (July 22 at 1:30 p.m. EDT) and Argentina (July 23 at 4:30 p.m. EDT)?
I really feel that the first couple of days has got to be more about us than our opponent. Obviously, we have a respect for everybody we play. But, without having a lot of time to prepare or see those teams live, we really need to fine tune the things that we think we’re going to be good at. We focused a lot on our defense. Regardless of what we can do offensively, there are going to be games where we can easily score 90 points and then there will be games where we struggle to shoot. I always want to feel that our defense can carry us through. Hopefully we can sharpen up things on that side of the floor, and then keep coming together in terms of our offensive chemistry.
What did the team and coaching staff get out of the scrimmages against Australia and Russia?
When you’re practicing for so long against each other, or even the guys in Colorado Springs, you’re not really sure how things are going to work when you actually play for real. So, it’s good getting the kids a chance to play another team, seeing how their offense or defense works against them. I think Russia and Australia both kind of exposed our weaknesses in dribble-penetration defense. So, it’s something for us to really focus on going into tomorrow’s game against Japan. It also allows us to see personnel; it allows us to see what those teams are running. And, it gives us an extra scout opportunity for down the road. Obviously we’re going to play Russia, but if we play Australia, we’ll have had an opportunity to see how they play against us. So, it’s a good experience for the kids and I think we got a lot out of both scrimmages.
There’s a huge change in the level of competition from the U18 to the U19. Have you talked to other coaches who have coached at this age level about it and how have you been able to stress the fact to the team?
I had a chance to coach with Doug Bruno and Carol Owens in my first experience and they both were U19 head coaches. They both explained to me how it really is different. But, having your players a year older and a year more mature helps as well. I don’t know that you can explain to a team until the games actually start. We’ve tried to tell them, tried to make it clear to both the 17-year-old gold medalists, as well as the 18-year-old qualifiers, that we’re not going to see 20- to 50-point blowouts every single night and they’re going to have to be more ready.
Until they experience it for themselves … again, I think the Australia scrimmage really helped us see that. It wasn’t a game where we were easily able to run away and win by a large margin (final was USA 55, AUS 50). I think that kind of brought things into focus a little bit. But, these guys are competitive. So, as we go along I hope they see how hard it can be, but also that they can overcome a lot of adversity.
That’s kind of become our motto with how cold things are here and the situations that we’ve had to practice in is that we want to control the things that we can and leave everything else up to everybody else.
What will the key to this team’s success be?
I think we really need to find a good, overall team chemistry. My challenge right now is that there is such little separation between one and 12, that it’s hard for me to find a rotation that I’m really comfortable with. I think I need to do that for them to have a comfort level. Last year I felt it was a lot easier to get in my seven or eight top guys and then sub accordingly. This year, it’s a credit to them, they’ve been very competitive and very effective, but again all 12 of them have USA Basketball international experience. They’re all competing against each other somewhat, but they also want to play. I think the key for us is to find that comfortable rotation that we can go to and have people be okay in understanding that just because they’re coming off the bench in the 11th or 12th spot, it doesn’t have any meaning, because one through 12, we’re stronger than anyone here and we need to use that to our advantage.
How important is that depth when you’re looking at playing nine games in 11 days?
It’s definitely the biggest advantage anybody has in this tournament. I told them last night after we scrimmaged Australia, I’ll be surprised if anybody leads us in scoring more than twice. With so many good players, it’s going to be your night one night and it’s not going to be your night others. You have to be accepting of the nights it’s not your night and be happy for the players who are getting it done. However we get it done and whoever scores the points and whoever’s out there in the beginning and the end all that matters is the end result. I think that they care enough about each other and they care enough about winning it that they’ll be able to take on whatever role they need to in order to be successful.