July 25, 2021 

Why the U.S. can’t look past Nigeria in Olympic opener

Nigeria was first African team to reach quarterfinals at World Cup

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Team USA assistant coach Dan Hughes says the U.S. team cannot afford to look past Nigeria in the Olympic opener. Screenshot from USA Basketball media availability.

The U.S. women’s basketball team might have breezed past Nigeria in last week’s exhibition by 31 points, but the African champions still pose the potential for an upset bid at the Olympics. The six-time defending champion U.S. team opens the Tokyo Games with the Nigerians at 12:40 a.m. E.T. Tuesday morning.

“The time before, when we played in the qualifier against Nigeria, we were very fortunate to beat them,” U.S. assistant coach Dan Hughes said. “We were down 16 at half, so every game is going to be unique.”

The game Hughes was referring to was Team USA’s 76-71 win over Nigeria in the Olympic qualifier in Belgrade last year. It was a one-possession game throughout the final minute until Chelsea Gray iced it from the line with 11 seconds left. Point guard Ezinne Kalu scored 17 in the effort for D’Tigress, as Nigeria is nicknamed, and it was one day after it hung with host Serbia until the buzzer.

“They have the ability to play in big streaks,” Hughes said. “They can cause turnovers, and they score off of your turnovers. We took care of the ball pretty well in that game, but the truth is, we have to make sure our offense contributes to our ability to be able to defend Nigeria. If Nigeria is playing out of their defense, they have the ability to play at another level.

“We have to have a good offensive game, as well as a good defensive game to make sure there are not a lot of streaks in this game that Nigeria can take advantage of.”

Nigeria became the first African team to reach the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup three years ago in Tenerife. Although the U.S. beat it by 30 in that round, it was still a monumental achievement. Although none of the Nigerian players are currently in the WNBA, there are several who did at one point in time.

In addition, Adaora Elonu was on the 2011 Texas A&M national title team, while Promise Amukamara (Arizona State), Ify Ibekwe (Arizona), Atonye Nyingifa (UCLA), Aisha Mohammed (Virginia), Erica Ogwumike (Rice) and Victoria Macaulay (Temple) all had memorable NCAA careers.

“Something that really impressed me was how hard they played the entire game,” U.S forward Napheesa Collier said. “I really liked the fight they had and that’s what every team is going to have while we are here, so we have to come prepared for every game. We’re going to get everyone’s best games and best efforts.”

Also note that at time of last week’s tune up, Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams were still attempting to join the Nigerian delegation in time for the Games, with Williams playing in the Las Vegas match. This may have been a distraction for Nigeria, which was still finalizing its roster.

Having them would have elevated Nigeria to medal contenders, but the current team could still pull the upset if the intangibles Hughes was talking about fall in its favor.

Written by Scott Mammoser

Scott Mammoser has covered major international events for FIBA, World Athletics and the International Skating Union. He has been to six Olympics and traveled to more than 90 countries.

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