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New-look US squad targets 11th women's World Cup crown

Updated: 2022-09-21 10:44
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From left: Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart and Ariel Atkins spearhead defending champion Team USA's challenge at the forthcoming FIBA Women's World Cup in the Netherlands and Poland. [Photo/FIBA]

SYDNEY-Olympic champion USA tips off at the FIBA Women's World Cup on Thursday with a new-look team missing some of its biggest stars, but even without Brittney Griner and Sue Bird the basketball powerhouse is the strong favorite for a fourth straight title.

Griner, a standout of the team that won Tokyo Olympics gold, continues to languish in a Russian prison while Bird and fellow longtime stalwart Diana Taurasi have retired.

Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Kahleah Copper and Ariel Atkins are among the Tokyo Olympians back in the red, white and blue for the 12-team tournament in Sydney.

With a deep pool of talent, several promising youngsters are knocking on the door, including college player of the year Aliyah Boston and WNBA rookie of the year Rhyne Howard.

"It just shows women's basketball is in good hands," said Indiana Fever's NaLyssa Smith, another of the youthful crew. "The future is strong for us. We are going to learn."

Washington Mystics shooting guard Atkins added: "We definitely are younger, but the way we want to play, we want to push the pace and respect the coach and USA Basketball by playing the game the right way."

Team USA, on a 22-game win streak in the competition, is pitted alongside Belgium and China in group play, avoiding world No 3 and host Australia.

The Americans, who swept past Japan to win a seventh straight Olympic crown last year, also face Jonquel Jones' Bosnia and Herzegovina, a South Korean side missing marquee star Park Ji-su and minnow Puerto Rico.

Beaten finalist in 2018, Australia is one of only two teams other than the USA or the former Soviet Union to win the World Cup, and it has a much tougher task in Group B.

The Aussies were drawn with Asian champion Japan, Tokyo Olympic bronze medalist France, sixth-ranked Canada, Serbia and Mali.

With the world's best locked and loaded for the coveted Cup crown, a young Team China squad is focused on making a strong impression on the international stage.

Although replaced by Australia as the tournament's No 2 contender on the latest volume of FIBA's official power ranking, Team China's solid inside-outside game, bolstered by towering WNBA duo Han Xu and Li Yueru, suggests a podium finish is not beyond the realms of possibility. The last time China was among the medals at the marquee FIBA event was in 1994 when the team took home silver.

World No 2 Spain failed to qualify.

The top four teams from each group progress to the quarterfinals before the 10-day tournament culminates on Oct 1, with the winner earning a coveted spot at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

The Americans open against Belgium with the plight of Griner, who was arrested at a Moscow airport in February for possessing vape cartridges with a small amount of cannabis oil, casting a shadow over the tournament.

The 31-year-old, who was in Russia to play for the professional Yekaterinburg team during her offseason from the Phoenix Mercury, was charged with smuggling narcotics and sentenced to nine years in a penal colony. Russia does not have a team in Sydney.

Australia's "Opals" also begin their campaign on Thursday, against European juggernaut France, with Lauren Jackson back on their 12-strong roster after she remarkably came back from years of retirement to be selected aged 41.

"It's been a very big ride, an intense one," said Jackson, a four-time Olympic medalist and seven-time WNBA All-Star who first played for the Opals 25 years ago.

"The girls are feeling pretty good and it's a really exciting time, but a nervous time for me."

Now a mother, Australia's greatest women's player retired in 2016 with a persistent knee injury before launching a comeback in April to make her fifth World Cup.

Ramu Tokashiki, Stephanie Mawuli and Maki Takada hold the key to Japan challenging for another podium spot off the back of its Olympic silver medal while Chicago Sky star Emma Meesseman will be crucial for Belgium.

She predicted Belgium would play a "beautiful" brand of basketball as it looks to better its fourth-place finish in 2018.

"I know the team had a good preparation, and they're ready mentally and physically," she said.




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