By Nathan Engel
SOFIA, Bulgaria – As the U.S. Women’s Basketball Team went through locker room pre-game preparations to play Greece in the semifinals Friday, they repeated a mantra.
“Work will win when wishing won’t.”
The mental conditioning appeared to work for the Americans, as they defeated Greece, 66-51, to advance to Saturday’s gold-medal match against Ukraine.
Although determined to move past a subpar performance against Japan on Thursday, the Americans hit the court against Greece a little off-sync on offense, turning the ball over three times as Greece jumped out to an early lead.
“We were allowing them to dictate play,” coach Laura Edwards said. “We couldn’t let that happen – we needed to ignore whatever they were trying to do and just play our game.”
Greece’s lead was short lived, as the U.S. fought back to seize the lead, 13-9, before the Greeks burned a timeout with three minutes left in the first quarter. It didn’t quite work, though, as the quarter ended with an eight-point U.S. lead.
In the second quarter, the Americans became more aggressive, forcing turnovers and controlling the tempo of the game. They pushed the ball, fought for offensive rebounds and made extra passes to stretch the lead to 12 points.
After another timeout by Greece, the U.S. went on an 8-2 run to end the half up, 38-22.
In the third quarter, Greece slowly crept back into the game, cutting the U.S. lead to seven points and ended the quarter just 11 points behind.
Between the third and fourth quarters, guard Zamica Gage said she thought to herself, “We need to make some adjustments.”
Greece might have narrowed the gap, Gage said, but she knew the U.S. could pull away with better defensive play.
In the fourth quarter, the U.S. counteracted every Greek move. Midway through the quarter, Greek center Alexandra Kotsiafti drove into the paint and attempted a layup but was blocked by Nukeitra Hayes.
The Americans converted that play into a score, firing up their squad. A few possessions later, Christine Smith sank a huge 3-pointer that all but clinched the game for the U.S.
“It was a tough game from the beginning to the end, but we definitely communicated much better on the court in this game,” Gage said. “It helped us trust each other more… we’ll be ready tomorrow.”
Edwards said the game was a good tune-up for the upcoming championship match.
“So far, the U.S. has had it a little easy, so we have to thank Greece for pressuring us like that,” she said. “Our players handled it very well and responded well in closing out the game.
“We had some huge plays in the closing quarter that really energized our teammates. Tomorrow in the gold-medal match, we have to bring our ‘A’ game and play it all four quarters, period.”
The U.S. plays Ukraine for the gold at 7 p.m. (noon ET) Saturday at Universiada Hall. The game will be broadcasted live on Bulgarian national television.