By Nathan Engel
SOFIA, Bulgaria – The U.S. Women’s Basketball Team had been building up to this single moment since it suffered a stunning loss to Sweden four years ago in the gold medal game of the 2009 Taipei Deaflympics.
As the clock ran out Saturday in the women’s basketball final, the U.S. earned redemption for that loss with an 81-57 win over Ukraine to bring home gold.
The U.S. effort was spearheaded by forward/center Easter Faafiti’s 35 points and 14 rebounds, and pushed from behind by the bench as players roared every time a teammate made a bucket or a defensive stop.
The U.S. kicked off the game with a 9-0 run over 2 ½ minutes, undeterred by an Ukraine timeout within the first minute.
The Americans suffocated the Ukrainians on defense, forcing them to turn over the ball or make erratic passes that sailed out of bounds on several possessions, including one that resulted in a shot-clock violation. The U.S. roared to a 26-10 lead by the end of the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Ukraine regrouped and pushed back with a 13-2 run, aided by three 3-pointers in a three-minute stretch sandwiched by two U.S. timeouts.
During the second timeout, as the Americans huddled on the bench, their coaches kept emphasizing aggressiveness on defense and told the players to put their arms up in the Ukrainian players’ faces at all times.
After the timeout and as the half wound down, the U.S. slowed down Ukraine’s offense and kept pumping the ball into the paint. The post players – including forward/center Lindsay Stergio, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds – did the rest, fighting through the defense to score.
Despite a halftime lead of 11 points, 44-33, the U.S. knew the real battle was yet to come.
During the break, head coach Laura Edwards told her players to shut out three key Ukrainian shooters: Olga Kalchenko, Alina Savchuk, and Olesia Litvin, who had combined for 26 of Ukraine’s first-half points.
The Americans followed Edwards’ orders and shut down the trio, holding them to 15 combined points in the second half.
They also intensified their attack in the paint. Faafiti opened up the half with three buckets in traffic. Gage added a huge steal and converted it into a layup to top off a 10-3 run, forcing Ukraine to call for a timeout earlier than expected.
Things became physical, and tempers began to flare on and off the court to the point that referees handed coach Edwards a technical foul.
This set the U.S. team on fire, and a few minutes later, Faafiti went all out for an erratic rebound in the corner and dealt the ball to Zamica Gage, who was under the basket and between two unsuspecting Ukrainian defenders. Gage converted the layup and was fouled.
After that, every time Ukraine attempted to put together a meaningful run, the U.S. responded with huge defensive blocks followed by key buckets in the paint – which would become the X-factor as the U.S. wrapped up the game with 60 points in the paint to Ukraine’s 18.
Late in the game, with a comfortable 28-point lead, the coaches emptied the bench, allowing all players the opportunity to play for the gold medal.
After time expired and with the gold medal clinched, the U.S. women, after eight long years of waiting and training, cut down the nets in Universiada Hall.