Nneka Ogwumike leads U.S. women into FIBA World Cup quarterfinals

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Thursday, September 27, 2018

In mid-July, Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike's WNBA season hit a wall as she faced the fatigue from so much play and not enough rest. She came back, though, and now is an important part of the United States' quest for another gold medal.

Ogwumike started all three victories in Group D play of the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup, averaging 10.7 points and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 56 percent from the field. In Friday's quarterfinals, the Americans will face Nigeria (ESPN3, 6:30 a.m. ET), a game that might have a little extra importance to Ogwumike, who is of Nigerian heritage.

The Nigerians' uplifting run through this tournament so far no doubt means a lot to her, even if she and her U.S. teammates will be trying to end that Friday. The Americans beat Senegal 87-67 in the opener, followed by a 100-88 victory over China and a 102-76 win against Latvia. Defense has been a concern, relatively speaking, for the tournament favorite. But the return of center Brittney Griner from an ankle injury for the Latvia game helped lift the Americans in that area, too.

There's never a question about energy, especially with Ogwumike on the court. She has a reputation in the WNBA as a player whose batteries are always charged. And while she missed 11 games in 2015 with an injury, this year was the first that fatigue got to her and resulted in an illness (mononucleosis) that sapped her strength and forced her out for the second half of July -- including the WNBA All-Star game, which meant she missed a chance to play with her sister, Chiney, a forward with the Connecticut Sun.

It was Ogwumike's second stretch of missed games in 2018; she was out June 26, 28 and 29 with back trouble. Ogwumike also sat out the final game of the regular season. The impact of her absence on the Sparks was huge; they lost five of the seven games she didn't play. Of course, there is no guarantee they would have won those games with Ogwumike, who averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds. But the Sparks finished 19-15, and even a couple more victories would have changed their playoff position.

Instead, they ended up beating Minnesota in the first round and then losing big at the Washington Mystics in the second to end their season. And while the Sparks looked out of gas by then, Ogwumike wasn't. Los Angeles' misfortune was kind of USA Basketball's gain, as Ogwumike was available for all the Americans' exhibition games preparing for the World Cup. She has been one of the stabilizing veteran forces for the team for all of this month.

Ogwumike is trying to win her second World Cup gold medal; she was also on the 2014 team that won. And while the United States goes into the quarterfinals as a big favorite, the other games could be intriguing.

After the USA-Nigeria game, Australia takes on China. Aussie center Liz Cambage, who had an MVP-caliber season for the Dallas Wings this summer, has been the star of the World Cup thus far, averaging a tournament-best 27.7 points, along with 8.3 rebounds.

Then France takes on Belgium, which is led by the Mystics' Emma Meesseman, who sat out this WNBA season. She is averaging 16.0 points and a tournament-best 13.3 rebounds. France is led by Sandrine Gruda (13.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG), who also didn't play in the WNBA this season, but previously spent three seasons in Connecticut and three in Los Angeles.

The last quarterfinal pits Canada against Spain, which was the runner-up in the 2014 World Cup. The Spaniards lost their final game of group play to Belgium, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing for Spain. It put them on the opposite side of the bracket from the United States. However, Canada could prove a tough foe.

New York Liberty rookie Kia Nurse is leading Canada at 19.7 points per game, with Indiana Fever post player Natalie Achonwa averaging 7.3 points and 5.7 rebounds. The Sky's Astou Ndour is Spain's leading scorer at 13.9 PPG, with former Mercury player Marta Xargay averaging 12.0.