Sports Journalism Blog

By Ryan Gregory | @Ryan_Gregory_

Sports Capital Journalism Program

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LA LAGUNA, Spain — Nigeria lost its quarterfinal matchup with the USA, 71-40, on Friday, dashing its hopes of medaling. Most teams wouldn’t take pride in a 31-point loss on an international stage. But most teams wouldn’t — and haven’t — competed with the United States as well as Nigeria did.

Although Nigeria’s audacious hopes for a first-ever medal came to an end on Friday morning, its opportunity to make history did not. Nigeria will meet France, a quarterfinal loser to Belgium, on Saturday. The winner of that game will play in the fifth-place game on Sunday. The loser of the Nigeria-France game will play in the seventh-place game. Each possibility would become a new experience for an emerging team.

The USA had handled its three previous opponents with relative ease. Senegal jumped out to a 10-2 lead early, but the USA regained a one-point lead before the end of the quarter. The USA entered its quarterfinal matchup with Nigeria averaging 96.3 points per game and shooting 52.4 percent from the field.

That was, until it ran into Nigeria in the quarterfinals. It was obvious early that Nigeria’s energetic defense was becoming a problem. The USA started the game by converting on just two of its first 16 shots. Nigeria hounded USA ballhandlers and forced eight first quarter turnovers. The USA never led in the first quarter and entered the second trailing, 17-9. Nigeria led for 8:42 that quarter, far surpassing any other team’s success against the USA this tournament.

“I think it was in the second quarter the (USA) was like, ‘Wow, we don’t need to joke with these people,’ and it showed,” said Nigeria guard Evelyn Akhator, who was held to 8 points on 4-of-15 shooting. “These are WNBA stars and playing us, we should be proud. This is a proud achievement for us playing the U.S. We lost but we look like the winner playing them and just going as hard as we can.”

Nigeria’s inspired play eventually took its toll. Late in the second quarter, Nigeria looked tired. The USA’s bench was much deeper, and Nigeria couldn’t maintain its high level of defensive pressure against fresh legs. By the end of the first half, the USA took a 27-23 lead.

It only got worse from there for Nigeria. The USA outscored Nigeria, 44-17, in the second half en route to a 31-point win, its largest margin of victory in this tournament.

Despite the loss, the tournament is far from over for Nigeria, which finished 16th in 2006 in its only previous World Cup appearance and is guaranteed its most successful finish in the tournament.

“It’s a little letdown today,” Nigeria coach Otis Hughley, Jr. said. “Realistically, the worst we can be is eighth and the best we can be is fifth. We’re fighting for fifth now, that’s our goal. We’re focused on whoever’s next.”

His team had looked impressive for a quarter against the No. 1-ranked team in the world. Now Nigeria will have the chance to prove it can do it for four.

Hughley put it best.  “I’ve never felt this good after a 31-point whupping,” he said.