Team USA faced off against the reigning World Champions and came out shooting the ball at a torrid rate, led by Lindsey Zurbrugg. Zurbrugg is one of nine first time Paralympians on the USA roster, but she came out with the confidence of a veteran. She notched 18 points in the first half of the opener and did it from a variety of locations on the court. The US led at the half, 34-38.
When asked how she approached her first Paralympic game and what her focus was, she said: “My goal was to go into the game and have fun and enjoy the experience, while at the same time be serious and get the job done.” Having scored or assisted on 14 of the first 16 points, it’s fair to say she meant business. She most certainly did have fun, as well, with her smile beaming through the camera onto the jumbotron and on TVs and devices as Paralympic sport was being broadcast on NBC. A tell-tale sign of the importance of this game was spotting Lewis Johnson, a staple on Olympic sidelines, in Musashito Forest Sports Complex.
How did Zurbrugg feel starting her Paralympic career with a hot shooting hand: “It felt pretty glorious! I like shooting the ball!” The USA women had an infectiously positive energy. Although the stands were mostly empty due to COVID restrictions, you could hear a constant chant of U-S-A and other words of encouragement from the US bench.
There was a stark contrast in the approach between the two offenses, featuring an inside game by the Netherlands as compared to an outside shooting focus by the Americans. The top 2 threats for the Netherlands, Mariske Beijer and Bo Kramer, scored a combined 48 of their team’s 68 points. Much of their damage was done within 10 feet of the hoop. Beijer, 2018 IWBF World Championship MVP, showed no signs of slowing down her command of the world stage. She notched 28 points in the opener and was seemingly able to find a mismatch wherever she went on the court.
The difference in approach didn’t impact the Americans as much as full court pressure defense did. After a 52-52 affair after 3 quarters, the Dutch would employ full court pressure in the fourth and created 2, 8 second violations on the Americans. This would then reveal the experience gap between the two teams. Team USA would soon compound this with 3 additional turnovers in an effort to overcome the Dutch pressure, en route to 9 total turnovers. As tends to be the case, this led to more rushed shots on offense and lower efficiency. At the final buzzer, Netherlands had increased their lead to 10 points, outscoring Team USA in the fourth 16-6.
The final score was 68-58, yet Coach Johnson offered this perspective on their performance against the World Champions: “Our team came out and threw caution to the wind and played great for the majority of the game. We need to go back and evaluate how we handle the defensive pressure that gave us problems at the end of this game.” Johnson spoke about the cadence of these games and how the staff must quickly assess areas of opportunity, while also planning for their game against Spain on August 26th.
Co-Captain, Natalie Schneider, echoed the positive outlook on the game after the loss to the Dutch. When asked about what it would take to help her younger teammates remain focused as they head into game two against Spain, Schneider said “we’ll remind everyone that a loss in one game doesn’t dictate how we will perform in the next game. We will look at what we need to improve and make sure we encourage our teammates.” As a four-time Paralympian, there’s no one more qualified than Schneider to offer that assessment.
Team USA tips off against Spain on Thursday, August 26th at 5:00pm Japan Standard Time.