NAPLES, Italy – Mississippi State's Jessika Carter answered the call when the team needed her the most, converting an and-one at the charity stripe to give USA Team a 79-78 victory over Japan in a friendly match before the World University Games.
Down by two, Carter grabbed an offensive rebound under the basket and immediately went up with the ball to hit the game-tying bucket with 4.5 seconds left, while also drawing a foul on the play. With a chance to go ahead, she sank the free throw to complete her second and-one of the quarter and help the Red, White and Blue win.
"I was proud of our ability to hang in there," said head coach Vic Schaefer. "We had a really rocky second quarter and got down by double digits. We cut it to 10 at the half. Just our resilience, we came out in the third quarter, and some of our players that have been in our program for a year started and got us out to an 8-0 run, causing Japan to call a timeout. Hopefully, the kids on the bench saw what it takes and how hard you have to play in order to play our style. I thought that set the tone.
"You're excited for those kids because they found a way to persevere and win against a really good Japan team. They won silver two years ago. I have a lot of respect for those coaches and players."
Carter finished with 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field and 6-of-8 from the free throw line. In the second half, she was a perfect 6-of-6 from the floor.
Xaria Wiggins was the team's second leading scorer, finishing with 13 points to go along with four rebounds and four assists. Jazzmun Holmes chipped in 10 points to round out the team's double-digit scorers. The graduate point guard also recorded team highs with six assists and five steals.
After a back-and-forth first quarter that saw USA Team take a slight 21-20 lead, Japan knocked down three 3-pointers and held the U.S. to just 3-of-17 shooting from the floor in the second period to pull ahead. Japan led by as much as 14 in the frame and entered halftime with a 41-31 lead.
A 10-0 run going into the beginning of the third quarter by the Red, White and Blue cut Japan's lead to a one-possession game at 41-39. Japan wouldn't give up its lead easily, though, answering every run by the U.S. with a spurt of baskets on its own to halt a swing in momentum.
Shooting 51 percent from the floor for the game, Japan's offense seemed to always have a response to the U.S. Even after USA Team fought back to make it a two-point game halfway through the fourth period, Japan rattled off an 8-2 run to make it a three-possession game with the clock winding down.
Finally, facing a 76-69 deficit, the Red, White and Blue got hot on both ends of the floor. A quick 5-0 run capped by Carter's first and-one of the fourth quarter made it a 78-74 with just over one minute left to play. Japan had the ball, meaning USA Team needed two stops against a sharp-shooting offense in order to have a chance. They did just that.
After getting the first stop, Holmes took things into her own hands and drove the ball into the lane and muscled up a shot to make it 78-76. On the next possession, USA Team's tight defense kept Japan from getting a clean shot and giving them a chance with less than 20 seconds to win the game. Grabbing her eighth and biggest rebound of the game, Carter went up and capped her impressive second-half performance to seal the victory with the and-one play.
"To be down four with 1:08 to go and not have the ball, we had to find a way to get two stops and two field goals," said Schaefer. "Obviously, Jessika's and-one was the big shot. You love seeing that kid make a big free throw with 4.5 seconds left. Jazz had a tremendous driving layup at the end as well."
For the game, the U.S. shot 41 percent from the field and connected on 84 percent from the charity stripe. All 12 players saw action during the contest.
Now, the team moves on to play in Pool C against Mexico, Slovakia and Taipei. The Red, White and Blue open with Mexico on Wednesday at 3:30 a.m. CT. On July 4, the U.S. will take the hardwood against Taipei at 6 a.m. CT. A 10:30 a.m. CT tip against Slovakia on July 5 will round out pool play for the team. After pool play, the team will move on to the bracket stages to play three more games in order to determine its placing. Those contests will be on July 7-10.
"What you do in pool play will dictate what you do as far as playing for a medal," said Schaefer. "We made the decision early on that this isn't like a foreign tour, where you go over and play a bunch of club teams that aren't very good, and you look like a million dollars, win by 60, everyone is happy and plays 10-12 minutes a game. We made the decision that we are going to go over, compete with the best and try to win it. We have practiced that way."