Ogwumike becomes voice of Team USA

Chiney Ogwumike grabs one of her game-high 12 rebounds during USA's 91-32 rout of Argentina in the opening round of the FIBA Americas U18 qualifying tournament in Colorado Springs, Colo. Ogwumike also led the Americans with 15 points. Glenn Nelson/ESPN.com

COLORADO SPRINGS -- If the opening round game of the FIBA Americas Championship was any indication, the USA U18 team is in for a lot of blowouts.

Behind 15 points and 12 rebounds from Chiney Ogwumike and 10 points apiece from Kayla McBride and Bria Hartley, the U.S. team rolled in their first game, a 91-32 rout of Argentina at the US Olympic Training Center.

The good news is that every U.S. player got minutes, and all scored. The bad news is that when it comes to top competition, the good ol' red, white and blue might be out of luck this week.

Wednesday evening against Argentina, the Americans burst out to a 13-0 lead -- had they not been so busy turning the ball over, they probably would have led by 30 at the end of the first quarter. Instead, they led 22-5, then reeled of a 25-2 run to smother Argentina. Stefanie Dolson went to work inside, Diamond DeShields deflected passes and Cassie Peoples fed hot shooters.

It was never a contest, so you'd expect players to maybe ease up a little, maybe take off a play or two with a sizable lead, right?


If there's one thing you should know about the U18 USA team it's this: They are led by Ogwumike, the 6-foot-3, Stanford-bound forward who displays unusual energy for her size and position, someone who doesn't know how to take a play off because she probably never has. You would never know from the way Ogwumike plays that her team is busy dismantling opponents.

She talks constantly, bouncing up and down the floor and diving on the ground for loose balls. She has a tendency to set the tone -- she scored the first points for the U.S. to open both halves -- and shows flashes of versatility. At one point late in the second half, Ogwumike snagged a rebound and took it up the floor herself, avoiding a defender with a swift behind-the-back move that drew some "oohs" from the crowd.

Peoples, her high school and U.S. teammate, says Ogwumike is "inspiring" to play with.

"She works so hard and brings so much energy," Peoples said. "There's never a dull moment from her. Everyone feels weak at some point but she finds a way to keep going, and that's what gives her an edge."

Ogwumike admits there are times she is sucking in air as much as her teammates, but does her best to be mentally tough. She says U.S. coach Jennifer Rizzotti has told Ogwumike and others they must "fake it to make it" -- if you tell your body you still have something left in the tank, eventually it will come.

"She's made this team," said Rizzotti, speaking about Ogwumike's intensity and leadership. "We've really been able to build around her."

The makeup of the U18s is one of hustle, defense and toughness. The superstar power, maybe with the exception of Ogwumike, is limited. No player or players are head-and-shoulders above the rest, but that doesn't bother Rizzotti one bit.

Four years ago, Rizzotti coached another national team that featured players such as Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Jayne Appel, all of whom would become college All-Americans. While that team might have had more players who thrived in one-on-one situations, Rizzotti said this U18 team has gelled better, and learned that if they want to win the gold, they will each need to contribute.

Rizzotti points to the intangibles players like Hartley and Cassie Harberts bring each day. They might not light up the scoreboard, but their steady, scrappy play will be key to victory.

Harberts says it all starts with Ogwumike, who she says is easily the most regularly competitive player in practice.

"She's always talking, always trying to make people better," Harberts said. "She expects excellence from everyone and is definitely the best leader I've ever been around."

So while the scores might indicate a snooze fest, don't expect Ogwumike to let up anytime soon.

"It's never boring when you're representing your country," she said.

After that, she had to go, skipping and singing down the hall with her teammates, the USA's own version of the unlimited Energizer Bunny.

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Lindsay Schnell is a staff writer for HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Oregon State University, she has been involved in the Oregon girls' basketball community for most her life as a player, high school coach, writer and fan. She also has been regular contributor to The Oregonian and won several awards for her writing. She can be reached at lindsay@hoopgurlz.com.