COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Celeste Taylor took part in the United States U-16 national team trials in 2015. When she returned to the United States Olympic Training Center for this past weekend, she brought some company: Philadelphia Belles AAU teammates Maddie Burke and Kylee Watson.
"I told them that it's a great opportunity," Taylor said Sunday. "They've put so much into it."
The three have taken advantage of that opportunity. On Monday, Taylor, Burke, and Watson were among 18 players named as finalists for the U-16 team that will take part in the FIBA Americas Championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, June 7-11.
The finalists will remain at the USOTC for a training camp. The final 12-player roster, which will be guided by former University of Connecticut star and current Tufts University coach Carla Berube, will head to Buenos Aires this Sunday.
"I knew I had to come in and play my best basketball and do the things that I do best," Watson said over the weekend. "I wanted to connect with the other girls and continue to play better.
"It's been super-exciting, super-fun, an overall amazing experience. To compete with some of the best players in the country and be coached by the best coaches has been unbelievable."
Joining the three Belles players as finalists are River Baldwin, Fran Belibi, Aliyah Boston, Cameron Brink, Samantha Brunelle, Paige Bueckers, Caitlin Clark, Zia Cooke, Azzi Fudd, Jordan Horston, Haley Jones, Diamond Miller, Jordyn Oliver, Ashley Owusu and Ramani Parker.
Eight national teams will take part in the FIBA Americas Championship -- Team USA, Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela. The top four receive berths into the 2018 FIBA U-17 world championships. The Americans have a 19-1 record in the event, with the only loss coming to Brazil in the 2013 semifinals.
Brunelle was a member of Team USA that won the bronze medal at the 2016 FIBA U-17 world championships. Boston was a finalist for that U-17 club.
"The entire weekend was an amazing experience for myself, my staff, the court coaches," Berube said. "We thought that having 133 talented athletes in this gym made it very hard for the committee. The athletes worked very hard every single session, every single scrimmage and gave it everything they had. To now be down to 18, I'm really, really looking forward to the next few days of practice."
Twelve of the finalists are from the Class of 2019, five from the Class of 2020 and one (Fudd) from the Class of 2021. Three -- Fudd, Miller, and Parker -- are applicant candidates who paid their own way to the trials.
Taylor, a 5-foot-10 sophomore guard from Valley Stream, New York, was just 13 when she tried out for the U-16 team two years ago.
"I think being here before helped me with the style of play and how fast-paced everything was," Taylor said. "I was 13-years-old, so my maturity wasn't up there and my build wasn't big enough. I came back and worked hard, have been finishing through contact. This is a great opportunity that not many people get. I'm glad I'm here."
Burke, a 6-foot freshman guard from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, also received advice from University of Michigan player Nicole Munger, who is a graduate of Burke's high school, Central Bucks West.
"She told me to go out and play the way you always play and don't be nervous," Burke said. "It's hard not to be nervous with everyone watching. I've played in front of college coaches, so I'm used to that. But this is my first time here with a selection committee."
Watson, a 6-foot-3 freshman forward/center from Linwood, New Jersey, said running track (she competes in the 400 meters) helped her prepare for the altitude.
The daughter of former NFL player Tim Watson, Kylee reportedly received scholarship offers from schools such as Louisville Virginia and Villanova before playing her first high school game last winter.
"I just want to keep a level head and focus on playing basketball because that's what I love," Kylee said. "It's been a great experience with a lot of perks."
On Feb. 5, Watson and Burke took an unofficial visit to UConn and watched the Huskies face Tulsa at Gampel Pavilion.
"We got to sit behind the bench and see everything they do -- the high fives, and being so encouraging," Burke said. "That was something I thought we could bring back to our high schools."
One of the highlights was joining the Huskies for breakfast.
"It was cool seeing them outside of basketball, and you realize they're just like us," Watson said. "They're normal college kids, but they happen to be really good at basketball.
"They have such an amazing program and just to be looked at by them is amazing. The culture that they've built is amazing. It was great to see that first hand and how they interact and how they're one big family."
Before she left, Burke -- whose father, Chris, played professionally overseas and in the USBL and CBA -- got some advice from UConn coach Geno Auriemma.
"He said to keep working and playing hard," Burke said.
That advice served her well here.