By Joe LacdanOctober 28, 2019
WUHAN, China -- U.S. guard Cinnamon Kava leapt into the arms of teammate Ariel Thomas moments after the U.S. women stormed back from 18 points down to stun France 85-79 in overtime.
The victory clinched the bronze medal and wrapped a bevy of emotions for the U.S. women, who endured numerous obstacles during the 2019 Military World Games.
"It's heart," said Thomas, who led the U.S. with a game-high 26 points during the third-place game. "Our whole team is built on family and trusting each other. The comeback was nothing but heart, the teamwork and dedication was nothing but heart."
Thomas, a Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class, and Army 1st Lt. Jala Harris had dealt France clutch shot after clutch shot, none bigger than Harris' three from near half court that sent the game to overtime. Down 71-68 with 15 seconds left, Harris (24 points, 4 assists) didn't hesitate to take the deep three, which seemed to take France by surprise. France's leading scorer Johanna Cortinovis backtracked as Harris made her dribble past center court and fired.
"I'm sure she probably was thinking nobody would shoot that ball in their right mind," said Harris, a Soldier from Fort Stewart, Georgia, who hit six three-pointers. "My teammates have confidence in me to get it up there."
Harris aggravated the same knee where she had previously torn her ACL during the second quarter and had to leave the game. After getting her knee checked, Harris then told U.S. coach Paul Parker Jr. to put her back in the second half.
"I just didn't want to go out like that," Harris said.
The U.S. weathered a whirlwind of emotions during the World Games. Already, they had lost their former head coach, Air Force Maj. Mike Meyers, who had been called back to his unit. They had only two weeks to train to compete with literal giants in China's towering front line, and a Brazilian squad that had national team members on its roster.
While the U.S. women (4-2) failed to upset either of the basketball powers, Parker said his team competed to the last minute. After losing a tough battle to host China 119-71, the U.S. bounced back to beat Germany 81-34 and Canada 87-39. Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Danika Dale led the U.S. with 17 points and 11 rebounds against Germany, while Army Capt. Taylor Alton led the Americans with 20 points against Canada.
"We're playing with a chip on our shoulder," Thomas said. "We had to pull it together. We came too far not to give it our all and leave it on the floor."
Parker had the difficult task of coaching the 11-player squad alone. Parker bounced ideas off of his roommate in the athlete's village, a U.S. men's basketball assistant. And he credited the team's trainer, Army Capt. Kelsey Gebauer, for helping him evaluate the players' physical conditions during crucial moments.
Afterward, outside the team locker room, Parker wept as he covered his face in a towel.
"It's a lot of emotions," Parker said. "Those ladies didn't quit. At halftime I wrote something on back of my clipboard. I said 'we gotta be resilient, we gotta fight through adversity, we got to play with heart. And they did all those three things."
In the first half and into much of the third, France exploited the Americans' lack of size by driving the basket, led by 13 points from Cortinovis. In the second half, U.S. center April Cromartie stepped up on defense and grabbed a team-high 14 rebounds.
France (3-3) held its biggest lead, 50-32 in the third quarter after two free throws by French forward Manon Boehrer. The French women still clung to a fourth-quarter lead with four minutes remaining, then Harris hit a three from the right wing and Army Sgt. Donita Adams (9 points) hit another three to narrow the lead to 69-68. After Boehrer scored on a layup, Harris responded with the pivotal three pointer. Cortinovis (20 points, 15 rebounds) missed a potential game-winning shot as regulation expired. Harris and Thomas combined for 10 points in OT to lead the U.S. to the win.
Thomas said she hopes the bronze medal will generate more interest in the women's game.
"We came far to get it, a lot of these teams have been practicing a lot longer than we have," She said. "We literally had two weeks to play with each other. We all come from different branches, so to be able to bring everybody's different perspectives together the last minute with a coach that was determined to win, we did what we needed to do."
China (6-0) defeated Brazil (5-1) to win the gold medal, 93-65, led by WNBA draftee Li Meng's 20 points.