BUENOS AIRES – The last time the USA was at the FIBA 16u Americas championships it was not a great showing. In fact it was the worst showing for an American team ever at the youth level finishing behind champion Canada and runner-up Brazil who upset the Americans in bracket play.
Dial in two more years, a new cycle of age group competitions and selections and it was time to see last year was a fluke and if the USA was back on track for gold.
The first real game test and it was against the best competition possible here on the second day of the 2017 FIBA America u16 women’s tournament as the United States squared off with Mexico. Surprisingly this could have been said of both sides. The different being one team is here to win two games, the other to win nothing less than vindication and gold.
To those parents and followers of the players on the USA u16 team they were quite aware of the hectic pace that the final 12 players endured. It started on Thursday May 25th with tryouts to the selection on May 31st, to the team practices in Colorado Springs and flight on June 4th to here. And oh yes, don’t come back without the gold. Plenty of prep for the red, white and blue.
For other countries like Mexico and Puerto Rico and Columbia – all teams in the USA bracket – this was a chance to qualify for the 2018 FIBA u17 World Championships. With Brazil not here due to a FIBA issue with the Brazilian Federation, this left open the door for these three teams and host Argentina to get to the Worlds. Everyone here expects the USA and Canada to get to the finals (which they did). That means these four teams need to win two Pool games and the expected loss to Canada (pool A) or the USA (pool B).
Mexico stunned the crowd and fans here by keeping pace with the USA in the first quarter being down one point. That changed in the 2nd quarter when the USA turned it up and cruise to a victory. While the final score USA 100, Mexico 37 looks like a blowout and another simple 2nd FIBA Americas Pool B game, it wasn’t – it was chess.
Mexico head coach Pedro Ramos understood exactly what his team was here for – just two games. Unlike the Americans who reached the finals against Canada on Sunday evening, Mexico the 4th place finisher (from 2015) had only two teams to beat to qualify again for the 2018 u17 World Championships – Puerto Rico and Columbia.
“It’s hard for us to challenge the USA team,” said Ramos. “We knew by halftime that it would be hard for us to continue this pace and I felt it was important to rest my players for the big game (tomorrow) against Columbia. This is the game we need to win (to qualify for the u17 World Championships.)
“We (Mexico) did not build upon the performance in Pueblo (2015). We have not continued with the cycle of preparation (to build this u16 squad),” said Ramos. “We haven’t made a continual plan to develop basketball in Mexico. We’ve only been together for this event for two weeks.”
“There was no real process to recruit the best players for this team, no plan and eventually we had to just grab 15 players for this team. We haven’t had a process of playing good teams to prepare for events like this. We only had 5 scrimmages before this where some of the other teams (like Argentina which will prepare for this event with a pre-event tour for competition) do.
Unlike Mexico which gave the Americas a tough first quarter, the Puerto Rican team came into their final Pool B game with the USA game (a 79-32 victory) with the same issue – preparation time and even roster players.
There are three “American” players on the PR roster (Jackie Vargas-Bines, PA; Giana Bouldan, NJ and Angelee Rodriguez, FL) and there was an opportunity for at least five impact players from the New York City area.
It was tough to build out the PR roster due to talent identification and a lack of parental information and support prevented them from fielding a strong team that could’ve claimed one of the u17 spots. Thow in the present PR governmental financial crisis and the traditional PR Basketball Federation in-fighting an opportunity was missed again.
“We’ve had only six weeks of preparation,” said Puerto Rick coach Luis Morillo. “There may be a few we missed for this event but we feel we did pretty good in getting players for this event.”
“With no Brazil this was this seen as an opportunity to qualify for the u17 worlds,” continued Morillo. “The other teams like Mexico are getting better not just teams like Brazil.”
The team that came in and took that coveted last spot was Columbia on Friday morning with a 45-41 victory over a stunned Mexico which was in control until the final two minutes when the wheels came off a 5 point lead. Columbia rebounding and defensive pressure game them a final 11-2 run to win and take the Pool B bracket second qualifying team spot for the u17s.
“For us this was unexpected. This is the first time in history we’ve qualified for the (FIBA) World Championships,” said long time men’s head coach Guillermo Moreno. “This is going to improve the motivation of all women players who want to be better.”
“This will help us with our governmental support and with our sponsors to get the girls together in one city and start working with them. This will help us continue to develop basketball in Columbia.”
It took Mexico head coach Pedro Ramos to put into perspective the difference in the USA team from 2015 to 2017.
“Yes, I saw them (in Pueblo in 2015). For me, this American team is strong. This is a really stronger team,” explained Ramos. “The United States is a complete team, they have really great potential. We don’t have all the pieces. We’re developing little by little. We’re not the level of the US. I liked the USA bench and when they came in (against us) they were a factor.”