USA Basketball takes lessons from the USWNT’s World Cup loss

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LAS VEGAS — Grant Hill’s phone started ringing shortly after 2 a.m. Sunday, a time of night typically reserved for bad news.

On the other end of the line was Hill’s wife, Tamia, who insisted he turn on the U.S. women’s national team’s match against Sweden in the women’s World Cup. While Hill is a Basketball Hall of Famer and the managing director of USA Basketball, his family has fallen hard for soccer because his teenage daughter, Lael, is on track to play the sport collegiately at the Division I level.

Hill roused himself from bed nearly 10 hours before the start of USA Basketball’s FIBA World Cup training camp and watched as the Americans lost to Sweden, 5-4, on penalty kicks. The American women, who won the World Cup in 2015 and 2019, were eliminated in the round of 16, their earliest exit ever.

“That’s why I’m dragging right now,” a sleepy Hill said after USA Basketball completed its four-day camp here later Sunday. “It just shows you in soccer, particularly, there’s such a small margin for error. In basketball, if you’re dominating, there’s a good chance you’re going to win. I’ve seen it with my daughter and in MLS and NWSL games. You can dominate in possession and shot attempts, and then the other team gets a breakaway score. That’s what makes soccer difficult, but it’s also what makes it such a beautiful game.”

Steve Kerr brings fresh vibes but a familiar steady hand to USA Basketball

The U.S. women won the possession battle and outshot Sweden, 21-8. Swedish goalkeeper Zecira Musovic was forced to make 11 saves, while her American counterpart, Alyssa Naeher, was called upon just once.

After the United States took a 3-2 lead during penalty kicks, Megan Rapinoe, Sophia Smith and Kelley O’Hara each missed to set up Sweden’s comeback victory. Lina Hurtig netted the winner for Sweden, but only after a video review determined that her shot, which was initially blocked upward by Naeher, had crossed the goal line by a matter of millimeters.

“Heartbreaking loss,” USA Basketball Coach Steve Kerr said. “I saw the highlights. It looked like we had some opportunities and just couldn’t get it done.”

The parallels between the United States’ women’s soccer and men’s basketball programs weren’t lost on Kerr: The USWNT had won four of the first eight women’s World Cups, while USA Basketball has won four straight Olympic gold medals. But that extended dominance has waned slightly in recent years as the international competition has gradually improved. The USWNT had advanced to the semifinals in every women’s World Cup before this summer, while USA Basketball’s seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup was its worst ever in a FIBA tournament.

Despite the changing circumstances, both teams face sky-high expectations from an unforgiving domestic audience.

“USWNT is in the place where they win it all or are abject failures,” sports commentator Bomani Jones wrote on Twitter shortly after the loss to Sweden. “There’s no in between. Much of America no longer roots for them but still demands perfection. Basically, like the last 40-plus years of USA men’s basketball.”

Both programs are big targets for fans, media critics and former players alike. Before the Sweden game, former USWNT member Carli Lloyd called out the team for its “very lackluster, uninspiring” mentality during the group stage. Similarly, former Washington Wizards star Gilbert Arenas said this week that USA Basketball’s roster was a “sorry a– group” filled with some players who “probably don’t even start on their [NBA] team.”

Kerr, who won gold as a player at the 1986 FIBA World Championship and as an assistant coach at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, acknowledged the shared dynamic as a fact of life.

“There’s an analogy to be made because USA Soccer has had a lot of success and USA Basketball has had a lot of success,” Kerr said. “We’re among the [FIBA World Cup] favorites, if not the favorites. That’s part of it. You embrace that pressure and competition.”

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The best way to handle the outside noise and live up to expectations, he said, was to “cover every single base” during tournament preparation.

“There’s going to be games that shots don’t go in,” Kerr said. “If you’re covering these FIBA rules and you’re nailing that stuff, you’re checking boxes and giving yourself a better chance to win. That’s the plan going in for the coaches and players. Then you tip it up, and somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose. There’s pressure. That’s what makes it fun.”

Hill, meanwhile, has stressed the importance of understanding the FIBA World Cup’s format, which, like the women’s World Cup, includes a group stage and a knockout round. To win gold, USA Basketball will need to play five group stage games and win three consecutive elimination games. USA Basketball lost in the quarterfinals to France at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, and it lost its Tokyo Olympics group stage opener to France before rattling off five straight wins to claim gold with a narrow five-point win over the French.

“In the NBA, we’re used to best-of-seven series,” Hill said. “If you have an off game or an off half, you can still win the series. [In the FIBA World Cup], it’s like the NCAA tournament or FIFA. We’re aware of that. It’s important that we don’t ease in. Sometimes you can ease into NBA games. You can’t afford that in this environment.”

One of the most famous moments in USA Basketball history came in the 1972 Olympic final against the U.S.S.R., when the Soviets were allowed to inbound the ball multiple times to set up a game-winning shot at the buzzer. The controversial loss still stings more than 50 years later, and USA Basketball coaches in recent years have used the sequence to remind their players that anything can happen.

Even so, Kerr said he believes there’s a fine line between being prepared for all possibilities and fixating on what could go wrong.

“We didn’t show [Hurtig’s winner to our team] or anything, but we talk about how big each play is,” he said. “You also don’t want guys tight. We don’t want everybody thinking, ‘Oh my god!’ Every play does matter, but let’s find a way to cover that base, and be loose and free and the best version of yourself.”

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