(Courtesy: UofL Athletics) BANGKOK, Thailand (July 28, 2019) - In a gold medal game that neither the USA (7-0) or Australia (5-2) could ever fully get control of, the USA gritted out an improbable 74-70 overtime victory to claim gold at the FIBA U19 World Cup on Sunday night in Bangkok, Thailand.
USA guards Rhyne Howard (Kentucky/Cleveland, Tenn.) and Paige Bueckers (Hopkins H.S./St. Louis Park, Minn.) were selected to the All-U19 World Cup Team, and Bueckers also collected tournament MVP honors.
Bueckers joins an impressive list of former USA U19 MVPs, which includes Crystal Langhorne (2005), Nneka Ogwumike (2009), Breanna Stewart (2013) and A'Ja Wilson (2015).
"It's kind of crazy to think about being surrounded by those names," said Bueckers. "They did so much in college and the pros, which is where I want to end up, so I just have to keep working. But yeah, it's crazy that I got this. I wasn't expecting it."
"Paige played outstanding the entire tournament," said Jeff Walz, USA U19 and University of Louisville head coach. "Rhyne played really, really well also. Hailey (Van Lith) had one of her best games today, Fran B(elibi) and Celeste (Taylor) played really well for us, Naz (Hillmon-Baker) came in with a huge offensive rebound and stick-back. So, that's what makes these games and these tournaments so tough, because everybody's so talented, it takes everyone to contribute in order to win.
"Give Australia credit, they played extremely well," Walz continued. "They did a great job breaking our press. We just did not come out as sharp as I would have anticipated, and it really hurt us. But at the end of the day I was really, really pleased with how we kept battling and kept fighting and figured out a way to win."
With Australia owning a 66-63 lead and in possession of the ball on its offensive end and the clock winding down with just 14 seconds remaining, a USA victory looked extremely unlikely. Australia's Isobel Anstey had possession of the ball on her team's offensive end and was called for an unsportsmanlike foul after elbowing USA guard Rhyne Howard (Kentucky/Cleveland, Tenn.) in the face while attempting to protect the ball. Caitlin Clark (Dowling Catholic H.S./West Des Moines, Iowa) made one of the two ensuing free throws to reduce Australia's lead to 66-64, and receiving the ball out-of-bounds, Hailey Van Lith (Cashmere H.S./Wenatchee, Wash.) made a back-door cut to the basket and Bueckers lofted a pass to her for the game-tying basket with 12.5 seconds to play.
"About 20 seconds left, they're up by three and I'm going to foul to put them on the free throw line and the girl just elbowed me in the nose," said Howard, who left with a bloody nose, which allowed Clark to take Howard's spot on the line. "But it's okay because we got the unsportsmanlike and Caitlin came in and knocked one of two free throws down. And we got the ball back. Then we executed a good back-door play for Hailey to put it in and get us to overtime."
Australia still had a chance for the win in regulation time, and following a timeout, inbounded the ball just inside of midcourt. The USA defense came up big and forced Australia into a desperation heave that was well off the mark at the buzzer.
Australia struck first in overtime and took a 68-66 lead, but Naz Hillmon-Baker (Michigan/Cleveland, Ohio) scored off an offensive rebound to tie the score. Van Lith hit a pull-up jumper in the lane with 2:35 left in OT to put the USA ahead, and Howard added a 12' jumper to up the USA advantage to 72-68 with 1:54 left. Australia scored with 1:19 to go in overtime to pull within two, 72-70, but Francesca Belibi (Regis H.S./Centennial, Colo.) scored off an offensive rebound with 25.6 seconds left to increase the USA lead back to four, 74-70. Belibi secured the win with a defensive rebound on the other end after an Australia miss.
"It was really tough," said Bueckers. "That was one of the craziest games I've ever played in. Australia's a really good team and they played us really well. We came so far and worked out with each other for almost a month and we didn't want to come up short."
Bueckers led the USA offense with 17 points and added eight rebounds and five assists, Van Lith tossed in 16 points, Aliyah Boston (Worcester Academy, Mass./St. Thomas, USVI) added 12 points and 11 rebounds for the double-double, and Howard finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
"We just really played for each other and our country," said Van Lith. "The energy and passion that it brought us really allowed us to push through at the end. That's what we play for. That's what we practice for and we couldn't be more proud of the outcome."
"That was really a gold medal game," concluded Howard. "That was the best game that we've had in all the time that we've been together. It was a great experience to get to know this team and being with these coaches again."
Owning a 36-33 rebounding advantage, Hillmon-Baker grabbed 11 rebounds to go with six points.
Australia started the contest strong, taking 16-10 and 20-14 leads before settling for a 23-22 lead after the first quarter came to a close.
The Americans opened the second quarter with an 8-4 scoring run to push ahead 30-27, but Australia scored six straight to regain the lead 33-30. The U.S. led 39-35 after Hillmon-Baker scored with 3:21 left before half, but Australia scored the half's final five points, including a 3 from Shyla Heal with 10 seconds remaining in the quarter, to secure a 40-39 lead at intermission.
The USA outscored Australia by a point in the third quarter, 14-13, to tie the contest at 52-all heading into the fourth quarter.
Throughout the game, neither team led by more than six points and there were a total of 21 lead changes.
Spain (6-1) handed Belgium (5-2) a 58-52 defeat in the bronze medal game.