Team USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball comes to Tokyo as the defending gold medal winner, but also enter with a retooled team with nine players who will playing in their first Paralympics. The Netherlands are experienced, confident, and are the defending International Wheelchair Basketball Federation World Champions. Team NL is considered the favorite to take gold at these Games.
What a way to start the Paralympic tournament.
Dutch experience and a glimpse of their future came together to yield a 68-58 win over Team USA in a game that was nip and tuck most of the way. The Netherlands were sparked by Mariska Beijer, the MVP of the 2018 World Championships had been a matchup problem inside, enroute to a game-high 28 points.
Team USA’s rhythm in the half-court game kept them in the contest and opened up options for Lindsey Zurbrugg who had 20 points and gritty Courtney Ryan, who had scored 12 as the Americans lead 52-50 through three quarters.
The Netherlands made an adjustment to start the final frame. Head coach Gertjan van der Linden had flirted with pressing the Americans throughout the game. With the game on the line, he fully committed to the tactic and placed rising star Bo Kramer at the tip of the spear.
Kramer’s history shows she would relish the task. Diagnosed with bone cancer at age 11, a kid with dreams of soccer glory pushed through nine operations on her legs. It beat the cancer but left her unable to run or jump.
At age 14, she took up wheelchair basketball and immediately took a liking to the sport. At age 18 she was in Rio at the 2016 Paralympics, wearing Team NL orange and winning a bronze medal. With standout performances in two European titles and the 2018 world championship, she’s considered one of the best young players in the world.
In the fourth quarter her job was leading the full-court pressure. She attacked the role with an unflappable confidence. When asked in an IWBF preview article who her heroes were, she replied “To be honest, I don’t have one. I will make my own hero.”
In the final 10 minutes, her on-ball pressure and hustle were heroic in disrupting Team USA’s half court sets. She also scored 20 points, including the bucket to the tie game at the start of the fourth and another basket at 5:51 left to give the Netherlands a lead they wouldn’t give back.
The most telling stat of the quarter is the effect the pressure placed on Team USA’s leading scorer. Zurbrugg was held to 4 attempts from the field and no points as the Team USA was outscored 18-6 down the stretch.
A win over Team USA in basketball is often a cause for celebration, but the Dutch players left the court with smiles and a calm resolve. Their young and out star Kramer called the tune to DutchNews.nl. “People expect us to get the gold,” she said. “and we know we can do it.”
Both teams continue play August 26. Team USA will face off against Spain. The Netherlands will meet up with China.