TOULOUSE, France -- It seemed like a recipe for disaster. France was bombing away from 3-point range with its sixth man, 2,000-plus fans, pushing the team on. Key American inside player Breanna Stewart picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter and at the midway point of the second quarter the lead for the USA was just four points.
In reality the circumstances just delayed the inevitable. The USA was too deep, too talented, and too focused to let the gold medal slip away.
French wing Claire Stievenard said her team had already accepted defeat before the game, but she and her teammates competed valiantly nonetheless.
USA point guard Ariel Massengale led the scoring charge again, as she did in the semifinal, with 20 points. She also dealt out six assists. She converted three of her five attempts from behind arc, which proved to be a back-breaker for France when it shifted to take away the inside presence of the U.S. posts and the shooting of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who scored 15. The defensive shift left Massengale wide open on the weak side and she made them pay. But France's early barrage made for an interesting half.
France made seven of its 14 3-pointers in the first half, giving the USA a bit of déjà vu. The French having several different players hit was different than what the USA experienced with China. Meng Li, the FIBA U17 World Championship MVP, did a majority of the long-range bombarding for China against the U.S., making it more frustrating than what the team experienced with France. In all, France had six different players connect from behind the arc, led by the three-for-six performance from Chevaugeon, who led her team with 11 points.
"They got threes from a lot of different people today," USA coach Barb Nelson said. "We expected them from No. 11 (Margaux Galliou) and we expected them from No. 10 (Sara Chevaugeon). Those were the two that shot a good percentage. Then when other players started to knock threes down it did feel like China all over again."
USA continued to fight the battle against itself that had been the biggest challenge to achieving its goal of gold – staying focused when you expect to win by a lot. In the gold medal game the intensity and focus were there for the entirety. They made some mistakes in dealing with ball screens but the fire was there.
Team USA set out for training camp on July 5, and has been together on the road since. The players suffered through the 100-plus degree heat in Washington D.C., for training camp. They played three exhibition games in Spain in boiling hot gyms, suffering a loss to Australia along the way, and had 10-hour bus drives. But it was all part of the preparation.
"The girls really committed," Nelson said. "We have a saying that we give up the me for the we, that we give up our individual needs and our individual goals in order to reach the team's needs and the team's goals."
Several players played out of their natural positions to get playing time or to give the team what was needed at the time.
"It was a great group of girls that sacrificed a lot, gave up a lot," Nelson said. "They had a lot of fun along the way, enjoyed each other and made friendships for a lifetime and picked up a world championship while they were at it."
"It's just a great feeling and the whole team did sacrifice a lot," said Elizabeth Williams, who scored 15 points in the final. "And we just really wanted to win and really wanted to be here. It was a really fun environment and we grew up on and off the court."
USA had its share of shaky moments, especially early in the tournament when it was trying to find its identity as well as balance on the floor. It was no easy task for Nelson as most of these players are used to playing most of, if not all of, each game they participate in. All can score big numbers when allowed to do what they do. The championship game did capture how far the team has come. The offense was balanced which led to an explosion of 92 points against a really good French team.
The US team was almost iconic in both Rodez and Toulouse. Young fans were drawn to them off the court. The players signed hundreds of autographs during the 10-day tournament. Of course the team's habit of jumping on the court after the final game of the day and dancing for the crowd helped perpetuate the fanaticism. But the fun and off-court entertaining also put things in perspective as these teenagers spent three weeks not as kids, but as world-class athletes with the highest of expectations and came out with a world championship for their country.
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Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. A graduate of the University of Washington with a communications degree, he has been involved in the women's basketball community since 1998 as a high school and club coach, trainer, evaluator and reporter. Hansen can be reached at email@example.com.