WASHINGTON — The USA Basketball women’s national team didn’t look like a flawless unit on Friday night vs. the Belgium women’s national basketball team at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C. But they forced the Belgian Cats to commit 17 turnovers, never trailed, and led by as many as 23 points en route to an 84-75 victory in their first game of the 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup qualifiers.
The Americans started Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd, Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray, Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby, Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas and Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins. This starting unit didn’t play particularly well together when they were on the court, though Gray did score 10 points and dish 8 assists. At any rate, Team USA and the Cats were tied 15-all after the first quarter.
As the game went on, it was clear that Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum and Connecticut Sun center Brionna Jones would make the biggest scoring impact for Team USA, where they scored a combined 30 points. Jones only played 18 minutes, but finished baskets consistently for the USA when their offense was still not in full gear early on.
Plum shot 5-on-5 from the field and 4-of-4 from the free throw line to give Team USA a commanding 23-point lead in the second half. Whenever the Americans were on a run, she seemed to be there every time, whether it was to take a shot, or make the timely pass on the break like this one to Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray.
Getting it done like @usab3x3 in Tokyo @Kelseyplum10 » @Graytness_15 #FIBAWWC x #USABWNT pic.twitter.com/gfnceuutwi— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) February 12, 2022
Plum deserves my anecdotal “Player of the Night” award, especially for Team USA.
So how did the Belgian Cats do? They were clearly not in the same form as they were in their 98-65 win over Puerto Rico on Thursday. The Americans are bigger and more athletic than the Puerto Ricans. They also consistently played the Belgians’ passing lanes, which helped produce their offense, especially when they weren’t shooting well in the first quarter and half. The Cats often play a very pass-happy game, willing to pass the ball to the open woman for a shot. However, if their passes were a bit slow or sloppy, Team USA was able to capitalize.
UMMC Ekaterinburg (and, reportedly, soon-to-be Chicago Sky) forward Emma Meesseman played for the second straight day in front of a friendly audience in D.C., where she played for the Mystics from 2013-20. She had a double double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, but many of those points came in the fourth quarter when there was little doubt in the game’s outcome. Meesseman still shot 7-of-11 from the field, typical for her in most international contests. That said, Team USA constantly double-teamed or even triple-teamed her, preventing her from taking more shots.
With Meesseman unable to score much on Team USA until the end, the Cats were unable to get much going until the fourth quarter when she became noticeably more aggressive. At this time, point guard Hind Ben Abdelkader scored a team-leading 17 points and forward Maxuella Lisowa Mbaka (nine points, two steals) was able to get going in Belgium’s comeback, even after Meesseman went to the bench for the final time. Both were recent call-ups to the team and have made their presence known in the qualifiers.
Though the Belgian Cats lost on Friday night, this game just felt more special for them. Meesseman played in D.C. for many years and won a championship on the same court at ESA. And either their fans travel very well or there may be more Belgian Americans in the D.C. area than I thought. When I arrived to watch the game, the section I sat in was surrounded by many fans wearing Belgian colors (black, yellow, red). Most people around me were speaking in Dutch and French, the country’s two dominant official languages. German is Belgium’s third official language.
The Belgians were also consistently chanting defense when the Cats didn’t have the ball. And they even quieted down a “USA!” chant in the last minute by saying, “Belgium! Belgium!” The Cats may have lost on the scoreboard, but the fans were not going out quietly!
The highlight of the night, at least in the stands was at the end of the game when Team USA fans were saying “USA! USA!”— Albert Lee (@aleeinthedmv) February 12, 2022
The Belgians responded with “Belgium! Belgium!”
Jean-Arthur Régibeau, Belgium’s Ambassador to the U.S., and Stavros Lambrinidis, the European Union’s Ambassador to the U.S., were also both in attendance last night and met the team after the game.
So happy to meet @TheBelgianCats after this excellent performance. Wishing them best of luck for their next game on Sunday.— Ambassador Jean-Arthur Régibeau (@BEAmbUSA) February 12, 2022
We enjoyed watching top competitors, together with hundreds of enthusiastic supporters. pic.twitter.com/AWawJrnrBx
One of the perks of being EU Ambassador is that I have not just one, but … 27 teams to cheer for!— Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis (@EUAmbUS) February 12, 2022
A pleasure to meet @TheBelgianCats tonight after a great game with the U.S., together with my friend @BEAmbUSA.
Good luck for the game with Russia on Sunday! Go Cats!#FIBAWWC pic.twitter.com/nNWdA5mAHs
While Friday’s game may be “just another win” or “just a game to retool the lineup” for Team USA, it was clear to me that this contest and the close outcome meant more to Belgium and its fans on Friday.
As notable as this contest was, the game between the USA and Belgium tonight was a friendly. The USA qualified for the World Cup after winning the Gold medal in the 2020 Olympics last year, so they didn’t have much to play for besides roster retooling.
Team USA will play Puerto Rico Saturday in their last game of the qualifiers at ESA. Tip-off is at 4:30 p.m. ET. Belgium will travel to the Dominican Republic this weekend to play Russia on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET. A win would punch the Cats’ ticket to a second consecutive World Cup.
All games can be streamed on LiveBasketball.TV. In addition, tomorrow’s USA vs. Puerto Rico game will also be streamed on FIBA’s YouTube channel.