Jones brings energy to Team USA

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- If there's one thing all USA basketball teams have in common, top to bottom, it's this: A combo guard.

The thinking of the U.S. basketball committee is that each team needs to be equipped with two true point guards and at least one more player who could step in and act as floor general, if needed. Two weeks ago at the U18 trials, head coach Jennifer Rizzotti looked around and worried her team would be missing someone who could play the ½-spot. But then along came Alexis Jones, and all was well.

Friday night against Puerto Rico, the 5-foot-6 product from Irving, Texas, showed just why she was moved up to the U18 team, filling the stat sheet with 10 points (on just six shots), 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals in a mere 21 minutes of play. Her energetic burst at the tip allowed the U.S. to take a commanding 32-5 lead after the first quarter, and helped jumpstart her teammates. Eight players scored in double figures as the U.S. crushed Puerto Rico 108-44 -- the tournament's first 100-point game -- led by Diamond DeShields and Reshanda Gray, who scored 14 and 12, respectively.

The win advanced the U.S. to a semifinal game against Chile on Saturday. Canada will play Brazil in the other semi.

"She's definitely the most improved," Rizzotti said of Jones. "When she first got here she was throwing the ball all over the gym and taking double-digit numbers of shots but she's calmed down a lot."

At first, it was adjustment for Jones, who is used to playing the point. That task has fallen to the other U.S. guards, Bria Hartley and Cassie Peoples, who have shown they are the correct women to run the team. But Friday night in the wake of a blowout, Jones finally got the ball in her hands in the open court, and she put on a show.

Jones excels on the break, and obviously is happiest with a quick pace. After deflecting a pass and scooping it up, she raced down court before losing her defender with a nice shake-and-bake move that ended with a pretty pull-up jumper. Moments later, she fired a nifty no-look pass to DeShields, who finished the layup with equal style. In the second half, again in transition, she found Gray inside when she laced a pass through three defenders.

"It's always fun to watch good basketball and she makes such good decisions," Peoples said. "She can do so many things besides run the point, and I think that's what makes her valuable to us."

Jones says that, at first, playing up and a little out of position took some getting used to.

"At first it was hard but I just tried to find my defense because I knew that was gonna put me in the game first," she said. "I kinda go as my defense goes and, when that's flowing, so am I."

At the 2009 trials, Jones showed up and says she acted "too laid back." The result was a plane ticket home, with some notes from the selection committed that she needed to work on her vision and point-guard skills. She listened.

"She's been so coachable," Rizzotti said. "She sees the floor so well and her decision-making has elevated her game to another level."

Though it took time for Jones to adjust, Rizzotti said she is happy Jones knows a little of the 1 and 2 positions, because she brings energy to both, something the Americans thrive off.

"She's one of our energy players -- her and Chiney [Ogwumike] and Bria, they have the ability to bring energy on the most consistent basis," Rizzotti said. "She's a great defender and when we need a little scoring spurt, she can do it."

With one blowout after another piling up for the U.S., Rizzotti said it's especially important for the Americans to bring energy and intensity on a regular basis. On the outside, the U.S.'s games have not been as exciting as Chile beating Mexico 65-53 or Brazil holding on for a 64-61 victory over Argentina, but there is no doubt the Americans are playing at a higher level than anyone else.

"Energy is good, because the girls are excited for each other, and that helps in a game like this," Rizzotti said.

She should be thankful then that Jones, the energetic, do-it-all guard who has improved each of the U.S.'s three games, is playing up.

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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.