Women’s basketball clinches pool with win against Belarus

SOFIA, Bulgaria – Going into the U.S. women’s basketball match against Belarus on Monday, head coach Laura Edwards told her team to stay hungry, focus on the game at hand and be ready to turn it on and go — even if it wasn’t a medal-round game.

Her team responded with a turbo-charged win, defeating Belarus 109-35 at Universiada Sports Hall.

“Pool play hasn’t been very strong for us this year,” Edwards said. “Our players are like hungry dogs, they want to go for the big bone right now.”

Belarus was able to hang with the U.S. through the end of the first quarter, when the U.S. led by 14 points.

But then in the second quarter, the Americans fired on all cylinders and put together a strong, relentless 19-0 run that spanned six minutes, leaving Belarus in the dust.

The U.S. wrapped up the second quarter with a commanding 55-18 lead.

As the third quarter began, though, the U.S. stumbled early, showing a lack of hustle and urgency on defense.

“I have to admit I was one of them,” center Nukeitra Hayes said. “We were doing well on offense and building onto our lead that some of us got a little lazy on defense. After Belarus made two straight buckets that I could have prevented, that was when we all knew we had to get serious.”

Edwards called a time out after two minutes and had a talk with her team, after which her players responded with a 12-2 run to pull away in the second half.

“I feel like our teammates’ chemistry is starting to gel so we’re playing much better together every game,” guard Zamica Gage said. “I’m definitely more excited now that we’re finally done with pool play and moving on to the elimination round.”

Forward/center Easter Faafiti, who sat out Sunday’s game against China, came off the bench and had a game-high 25 points and 15 rebounds while dominating in the paint.

Hayes picked up her third double-double in four games with 19 points and 13 rebounds. Guard Alexa Justus was able to carry over the momentum from her breakout against China by scoring 14 points to go with four rebounds.

Six U.S. players finished with double-digit points.

Gage scored just six points and had 4 steals, but her repeated penetration drives deep into the heart of the Belarus defense opened up opportunities for other players to score easy buckets. She finished with a game-high eight assists.

Gage “can get really creative with the plays she creates, not only for herself but for others,” Edwards said. “Gage definitely has the ability to instantly become an impact player on the court whenever she has the ball in her hands.”

After wrapping up pool play in first place, the U.S. has two days off to tinker with the “little things” and clean up its offense and defense before it returns to competition in the medal round, playing the fourth-place team in Pool B at 5 p.m. Thursday.

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