July 27, 2021
How Team USA avoided an upset by Nigeria
African champions forced 25 turnovers in Olympic basketball opener
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Nigeria showed up ready to play in Team USA’s opening game of the Olympic Women’s Basketball Tournament in Saitama, Japan.
The Nigerian team that the U.S. pulled away from by 31 points in exhibition on July 18 was nowhere to be seen on Tuesday, pouncing on an 8-1 lead and 20-17 edge after the first quarter.
The Americans came back to win, 81-72, in a highly-physical contest that saw Nigeria hold a 25-11 turnover advantage with 11 steals. So how did the U.S. avoid the upset and earn its 50th-consecutive Olympic victory?
“At the end of the day, we lived up to our standards,” said U.S. forward A’ja Wilson, who led all players with 19 points. “We had to go out there and play our hardest game. It wasn’t going to be pretty. We really focused on the defensive side. We felt that if we could slow them down and rebound the basketball, then we could just play our game. I think we handled it pretty well.”
Speaking of handling the ball, Sue Bird dished 13 assists, almost as many as Nigeria’s 15 as a team, and recorded the 100th of her Olympic career. The U.S. also capitalized on rebounds with a 61-41 edge and Wilson grabbing a game-high 13 in her Olympic debut.
“I was really nervous today,” Wilson said. “My teammates made me feel comfortable and allowed me to play my role and do whatever I can. At the end of the day, I do whatever I can to bring the energy. We knew Nigeria was going to be very tough on us, we knew they were going to be everywhere defensively. We just need to take care of the basketball.”
In addition, U.S. coach Dawn Staley told USA Basketball Communications that she anticipated Nigeria to “fly around” and “crowd our space,” forcing her team to adjust to a different style of game. She said she will try to correct the turnovers and ill-advised passes in the upcoming games.
The single-digit margin of victory was the Americans’ closest game in the Olympics since a 66-62 win over Russia in the 2004 Athens semifinals. Nigeria was making its first Olympic appearance since those Athens Games, and three years ago, became the first African team to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals.
It was the fourth game of the Olympics overall, with the first three all being decided on four points, including Japan’s win over France. The next game for the U.S. will be against the host Japan at 12:40 a.m. ET on Friday, while Nigeria will face France at 4:20 a.m. ET Friday.
Written by Scott Mammoser
Scott Mammoser started out covering the Niagara University women's basketball team in 2002. He went on to cover FIBA World Cups in Turkey and Spain, Under-19 World Cups in Thailand and Spain, the Asia Cup in China, as well as major international events for World Athletics and the International Skating Union. He has been to six Olympics and traveled to more than 80 countries.