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Team USA opens with win thanks to key substitution and excellence from A’ja Wilson

The U.S. let a big lead slip away in its Olympic opener against Nigeria, but Chelsea Gray and Sylvia Fowles calmed things down in the end to ensure that A’ja Wilson’s masterpiece was not ruined.

A’ja Wilson helped Team USA soar past Nigeria.
Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

A late subbing in of Chelsea Gray and Sylvia Fowles by Team USA head coach Dawn Staley paid off as the pair combined for a 6-0 run that allowed their team to avoid a scare from Nigeria and win 81-72 in their Olympic opener on Tuesday at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.

Nigeria was on a 12-0 run that brought the score from 75-55 USA to 75-67 USA when Gray and Fowles entered during Adaora Nnenna Elonu free throws. Elonu had just made a 3-pointer from the left corner and was rewarded two free throws because A’ja Wilson, who was the star of the game, came into her shooting space.

After Elonu made both free throws at 3:19 remaining, Gray found Fowles for a little floater that boosted the U.S.’s lead back to 10. Two Gray mid-range makes later, USA led by 14 with 1:30 to play. Gray also had a steal during that stretch and Fowles had a defensive rebound.

Nigeria closed the game on a 5-0 run, but there was not enough time left for it to come all the way back.

Wilson scored 12 points in the second half to finish with a game-high 19. She was relentless with boards and put-backs and led all rebounders with 13 caroms to go along with two steals and two blocks.

Brittney Griner added 13 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks while Sue Bird notched an incredible 13 assists. Both Bird and Diana Taurasi proved why they are worthy of their fifth Olympic appearance together as Taurasi scored all 10 of her points in the first half. Breanna Stewart struggled early but finished with nine points, 11 boards and four helpers.

Nigeria was led by Ezinne Kalu’s 16 points while Elonu and Promise Amukamara (four assists) each tossed in 10. Kalu also had six rebounds.

Nigeria gave the U.S. a scare early and late. It led 8-1 three minutes and 34 seconds in and 20-17 after one. But the U.S. went on a 23-0 run in the second that took the score from 25-20 Nigeria to 43-25 USA.

Wilson contributed the first four points of the run and Stewart scored her first point of the game on a free throw to tie the game. Later, Stewart’s first field goal brought the score to 32-25 and her first three was huge for momentum as it brought the score to 37-25. Tina Charles added six points to the run.

Elonu made a deep bank-three at the buzzer of the second to give Nigeria some momentum back and cut its deficit to 12 at the break. The U.S. answered by winning the third 26-18 and capping it off with a Jewell Loyd buzzer-beater triple.

Nigeria was 4-of-26 from beyond the arc entering the fourth before going 2-of-2 in the final frame.

USA held Nigeria to 21 percent shooting from the field in the first half and outrebounded it 61-41 (45-22 on the defensive glass) for the game. Another key stat was USA’s 14 first-half assists compared to Nigeria’s three.

Nigeria turned the ball over just twice in the first half while the U.S. turned it over 25 times in the contest, something it will have to clean up before it faces host Japan on Friday. Japan defeated France 74-70 on Monday.