February 12, 2022 

Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas’ on-court chemistry shines in USA Basketball senior team debut

Team USA is the fourth team that Jones and Thomas have suited up for as teammates

With less than two minutes left in the third quarter of Team USA’s first World Cup qualifying game against the Belgian Cats, Alyssa Thomas caught an outlet pass from Kayla McBride and raced up the court. Charging across the floor, she forced 6’5 Belgian center Serena-Lynn Geldof to turn away from Brionna Jones, giving Thomas space to bounce a pass to her long-time teammate.

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Jones did what she does best, dropping her shoulder and knocking back Geldof as she leapt back to try to block Jones – who used her strength to finish through contact, putting Team USA up by 19 points, and setting the Americans up to take their largest lead of the game when they went up by 23 points early in the fourth quarter.

And another angle, just for fun.

It was a quintessential play for both players — Thomas creating havoc and opportunities in transition, and Jones using her strength and footwork to score against taller opponents. It was also a display of the chemistry Thomas and Jones have, which is crucial to a freshly overhauled Team USA roster that had only a week to practice together.

Jones and Thomas are teammates on the Connecticut Sun in the WNBA, on USK Praha in Czech Republic, and even spent a season together in college when Thomas was a dominant senior and Jones was a freshman for the Maryland Terrapins. Now they’re sharing the same uniform for the fourth time with Team USA.

“I keep telling her she’s never going to get away from me,” Jones said on Wednesday. “It’s been great for me always having that veteran voice who I’ve known and is now my friend. … I know what she’s going to bring, and she knows what I’m going to bring. Having that connection helps for all the teams that we’ve been playing on.”

Jones came off the bench against Belgium on Friday night and scored 14 points on 7-of-13 shooting and grabbed six rebounds – including four offensive boards that led to six second-chance points. She was the team’s second-highest scorer and took the most shots on offense.

The chemistry between Jones and Thomas was apparent as two of Thomas’ six assists went to Jones. As Belgium outplayed the U.S. in the fourth quarter and threatened a comeback, the two combined to close the door on a nearly four-minute, 15-4 run by the Cats that cut the U.S. lead to 11 with less than three minutes in the game. 

After Jones forced a jump ball with 2:44 to play, Jones set a screen for Chelsea Gray, then dove to the basket, knocking back Belgian big Billie Massey to establish position under the rim. Gray swung a pass to Thomas, who popped the ball inside to Jones, who finished the layup to give Team USA a 13-point advantage.

Belgium roared back with another 5-0 run, but a key defensive rebound from Jones led to Thomas finding Jewell Loyd in the corner for a dagger three that closed the book on a comeback.

“I’m like a proud big sister,” Thomas said of her time playing with Jones earlier this week. “I’ve known Bri since her freshman year of college and I’ve been fortunate to play with her and watch her grow over the years.”

Team USA coach Cheryl Reeve said it’s always valuable for USA Basketball to have players who have experience as teammates. The overhauled roster only had from last Saturday to Thursday to practice together, and having players who know how to communicate with each other gives Reeve “interpreters” to players she doesn’t usually coach.

Reeve also heaped praise on Jones, who has established herself as a star over the past two seasons — growing in 2020 as a starter for the Sun in Jonquel Jones’ absence, and building on that with an All Star appearance and Most Improved Player award in 2021.

“Bri’s a great story,” Reeve said. “I’ve been in the league through the course of her evolution and what she’s become. [She’s] a lot like Dearica [Hamby], they just work hard, work hard, work hard – and they know what they do well. “

Reeve said she was also excited to have Thomas, who embodies the physical and mental toughness needed for Team USA’s all-out approach, and is also a skilled passer, dominant rebounder and a force in transition.

Unsurprisingly, Thomas led Team USA in minutes against Belgium, and was the only player to play more than 30 minutes. She scored six points on 50 percent shooting, and added five rebounds, six assists and three steals.

“Any team that she’s been on, whether that’s here in the states or abroad, has been successful,” Reeve said. “So I’ve enjoyed being on Alyssa Thomas’ side.”

Alyssa Thomas dives for the ball against Belgian starter Maxuella Lisowa Mbaka (31). Photo credit: FIBA

Despite their success in the WNBA over the past five seasons, the Connecticut Sun haven’t had many players involved at the national team level. Thomas and Jones are the first Sun players to represent the U.S. in an international senior competition since Morgan Tuck and Layshia Clarendon in the 2018 FIBA World Cup. The Sun haven’t had any players on a U.S. Olympic team since Ashja Jones and Tina Charles in 2012.

This year has seen a resurgent Sun contingent on the national team after putting up a league-best regular season record during the 2021 WNBA season. Along with Jones and Thomas, Sun coach Curt Miller also spent the week at USAB training camp as a court coach and team scout, along with Sun trainer Nicole Alexander and president Jennifer Rizzotti, who is chairman of the selection committee.

“Having familiar faces here brings that comfortability aspect, having people around that you’re familiar with that you can talk to and spend time with and break down the game,” Jones said.

Thomas last played for Team USA in 2011 U19 World Championship team and was later one of six collegiate athletes invited to participate in the a USA National Team minicamp in 2013.

Jones played with USA basketball during the 2015 World University games and most recently took home a gold medal and MVP tournament trophy in the inaugural 3×3 AmeriCup tournament in Miami in November. She led the team to an undefeated, five-game run, scoring 41 points along the way.

“It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed every part of it. I would definitely do it again and I had a great time down there in Miami,” Jones said. “I didn’t expect this call to come play for the World Cup qualifying team, but I’m excited to be here and I can’t wait to play with this group.”

Miller, who also took a trip down to Miami to watch Jones back in November, said he saw Jones as an elite player in 3×3. She was a matchup nightmare in a game that uses a lot of screening action and forces switches — it was difficult for smaller wings or guards to touch her on the low block, and Jones dominated around the rim, he said.

Jones’ ability to switch onto smaller guards on defense, and her skill as a facilitator also made her a natural fit for 3×3, according to Miller.

“I just think if she stays on that track, she is a great weapon for Team USA,” Miller said.

Written by Jacqueline LeBlanc

Jacqueline LeBlanc is the Connecticut Sun beat reporter for The Next. Prior to The Next, Jacqueline has written for Her Hoop Stats and Sports Illustrated.

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