SYDNEY -- It had been a minute since Team USA looked a step behind on the court, but that was the case Thursday in its FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup quarterfinal game. Team USA trailed for the first time all tournament 4-0 and shortly afterward at 11-7 against a fearless Serbia team that managed to make it a four-point game late in the second quarter in front of a loud, mostly pro-Serbia crowd.
But the Americans did what they typically do: Put their foot on the gas and not let up, going on a 20-0 run following an injury to wing Kahleah Copper to put the game away, ultimately advancing to the semifinal behind an 88-55 win.
"I think we needed this push," said 2022 WNBA MVP A'ja Wilson, whose 15 points and eight rebounds helped carry the team. "I think we needed that first quarter to kind of wake us up a little bit because that's what we're going to see. It's going to get tougher from here on out. So I think it was a good game for us to have. It's also a good game for us to kind of see and toughen it out."
Team USA -- which has won 10 World Cups, including three straight -- will next play Canada, which beat Puerto Rico in the other quarterfinal. The semifinals and medal games will be held over the next two days.
The Serbia matchup was a physical grind -- "more physical than we've seen in the whole tournament," said Kelsey Plum, who finished with a game-high 17 points. Copper, who has had a standout tournament with her ability to attack the rim and lock players down defensively, went down at the 2:59 mark of the second quarter, exiting the game and then departing for the locker room just prior to halftime. She did not return for the second half, and national team coach Cheryl Reeve said postgame the team is awaiting imaging results on the unspecified injury to determine her status moving forward.
Betnijah Laney also took a hard fall early in the fourth, leaving the floor but remaining on the sidelines with her team the remainder of the game. Reeve said she suspected Laney had the wind knocked out of her.
Serbia -- the No. 10 team in FIBA's rankings -- bowed out of the World Cup but largely succeeded in its game plan: clogging the paint, where Team USA has had so much success this tournament. The quarterfinal marked the first time during all of the World Cup that the Americans were bested in paint scoring 28-26.
"They had a lot of bodies in the paint," said Alyssa Thomas, who finished three assists shy of a triple-double with 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. "Rightfully so, with us scoring 94 points in the paint [against Korea], I would do the same. But they focused on that, and we really had to knock down outside shots."
The Americans converted 11 of 31 attempts from the 3-point arc but feasted at the free throw line, going 21-for-23.
Team USA took the lead for good at 14-13 off a layup from Breanna Stewart, but struggled most of the first quarter to contain Serbia's well-executed offense, and defensively had trouble at times adjusting to Serbia's physicality and ability to pack the paint. The Americans' 17 turnovers compared to Serbia's 16 marked the first time all tournament they committed more turnovers than their opponent.
"I think that for us, we just have to have a better mindset going into games knowing that people are going to be super physical with us and we're not going to get the benefit of the doubt on calls, and we just have to be tougher," Plum said.
Added Wilson: "I think we can work our way out of [teams clogging the paint], but we've got to do better on the defensive end as well."
Following Copper's injury, at which point Serbia was within five following a four-point play from Jovana Nogic, Team USA proceeded to go on a 12-0 run to close the first half up 50-33, and then scored the first eight points of the second half. Serbia was held scoreless from the 3:39 mark of the second to the 5:15 mark of the third, and managed just seven points the rest of the frame.
Reeve was pleased with how the team adjusted and executed rotations as the game went on.
"I think that was kind of a moment where we really had to lock in," Wilson said of Copper's injury. "That first quarter kind of stumbled us a little. I know I was kind of caught off guard. We can't have that. So I think for us and for the rest of the way, we've really got to lock in from the jump and understand that we can get whatever we want, we've just got to stay the course."
Thomas, who played the entire second quarter, particularly thrived in the game's physical style of play. In the stretch at the end of the second frame where Team USA started to pull away, she finished with six points, three rebounds and an assist, while her defense was key to starting to make Serbia uncomfortable offensively.
"I think she's the glue of this team," Wilson said of Thomas. "The X factor of this team because [physical basketball typical in FIBA competition] is her game. That's her style. It's like [Plum] and 3x3. It's just fitting for them."