SYDNEY – Without Brittney Griner's 6-foot-8 presence to dominate around the basket, the U.S. women needed to figure out how to overcome her absence.
So far, so good.
The Americans have rolled through the World Cup, beating opponents by average of 44 points per game without Griner and one of the best frontcourts ever assembled in women's basketball.
Griner was sentenced to nine years in prison last month in Russia on a drug charge. President Joe Biden called the verdict in the politically charged case “unacceptable,” and U.S. diplomats have been working to secure her release.
While Griner's circumstances have weighed on the team emotionally, her absence is one of many changes to the U.S. lineup. The Americans are also without 6-5 Sylvia Fowles and 6-4 Tina Charles, who retired from the team after winning several gold medals — including at the Tokyo Olympics last year.
However, 6-4 Breanna Stewart and 6-5 A’ja Wilson have been able to fill the void. They are different types of post players. Both are versatile with the ability to play inside and out, and defend all types of players.
“A'ja and I can bring them to the block or outside and that keeps the defense guessing and we have a lot of different options,” Stewart said. “We know we can give them a lot of different looks.”
Stewart, 28, and Wilson, 26, should give the U.S. a formidable 1-2 punch for a long time — though they hope Griner will be rejoining them soon.
Wilson, who arrived Friday after celebrating the Las Vegas Aces' first WNBA championship, scored 20 points in Saturday's 77-63 win over China. She hit 15-foot jumpers and also scored in the paint against China's much taller lineup that featured 6-10 Han Xu. Stewart and Wilson also helped hold China about 40 points under what the country was averaging in the tournament.
“Stewie and I can switch defensively, which is great," Wilson said. “Don't get me wrong, BG and Syl are missed. I look around and am like, ‘Where is everybody?’ It's me and Stewie now. We've done this before. But yeah we're definitely different than some of the past players.”
Even without Griner, the U.S. has dominated its competition in the paint, outscoring its group opponents by an average of 36 points. The Americans are averaging 60.8 points inside the lane, including an eye-popping 94 against South Korea.
“It's insane,” forward Alyssa Thomas said. “I've never seen any numbers like that. It's what we are trying to do by getting the ball inside.”
The U.S. didn't have as much success inside in the 88-55 quarterfinal win over Serbia, which clogged the paint and outscored the Americans 28-26 inside.
“It’s one of those things you got to live with,” Wilson said. “Hopefully these next couple of games we can get back to owning the paint. Serbia did a great job of locking it down."
As well as Stewart and Wilson have played, the U.S. would love to have Griner in the lineup. The Americans decided to honor her by not having anyone wear her No. 15 jersey at the World Cup. Brionna Jones is wearing No. 16 instead.
“We'd rather have Brittney in there for sure,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said. “We want to put it inside as that’s the strength of USA Basketball. We will continue to have the ball inside.”
It's not a new strategy. The U.S. has dominated inside during World Cup play dating to the days of Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson.
It’s not just Wilson and Stewart who are contributing to the U.S. run in Sydney.
Shakira Austin had 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks in the win over Puerto Rico, and Brionna Jones added 15 points.
At 22, Austin is the youngest player on the team and is playing with the U.S. for the first time.
“She has such great length," Reeve said. “She’s great in the paint."
Familiar praise coming from a coach about an American post player.
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