Return of Brittney Griner changes Team USA’s defensive presence

Brittney Griner improves yet another team’s defense, this time, her country’s.

SANTA CRUZ de TENERIFE, Spain – After China put 88 points on the board in the team’s previous game, U.S. coach Dawn Staley proclaimed the ‘Under Construction’ sign was up on the Americans’ defense. With one rest day, the team tore down the sign, limiting Latvia to 50 points through three quarters to win the final game of the group stage of the FIBA World Cup on Tuesday, 102-76.

The Americans went on a 19-0 run in the third quarter, before Latvia went 6-of-9 from downtown to open the fourth, creating a closer final score than the game reflected.

It wasn’t by accident that the defensive side was ignited just as Brittney Griner made her debut of the competition after missing the Senegal-and China games with an ankle injury. The 6-foot-9 center scored 15 points in 13 foul-plagued minutes for the win.

“I liked to think I had a lot of effect,” Griner told High Post Hoops jokingly, “but it was definitely a joint effort. The other day in practice, we went really hard, everybody stayed on the help side. Today, we tried to go out as much as we could, and I think we did a good job of that, everybody did. I just want to celebrate being out there with my team.”

If anyone knows how valuable Griner can be in the paint to win a championship it’s her teammate on the Phoenix Mercury, Diana Taurasi.

“That was something we’ve been working on,” Taurasi said of the defense. “We have to get a little bit tougher and play harder. The effort showed in stretches, and that’s why we were able to pull away a little bit earlier than the past two games. Brittney makes such a big difference on both ends of the floor, she’s so dominant on the offensive side, and defensively, she deters people from even going inside.”

Meanwhile, Staley rested two of the star players from the WNBA Finals, Sue Bird and Elena Delle Donne, as Layshia Clarendon was inserted as the starting point guard. Tina Charles led the team with 18 points. The Americans will await the winner of Wednesday’s qualification game in the quarterfinals on Friday.

“I think it (the third quarter) exhibited the best of the team we want to become,” Staley said. “That is the plan of who we will be in the quarterfinals.”

Latvia, a nation of less than 2 million, had competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but never before in the World Cup. Anete Steinberga, formerly of UTEP, led all scorers with 30 points and was 5-of-11 on three pointers. One of four teams eliminated on Tuesday, along with Puerto Rico, Korea and Argentina, attempting to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Games is next on the agenda.