BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- As the United States women's national team faced an eight-point deficit against Canada at the start of the fourth quarter Saturday, coach Dawn Staley had two former WNBA MVP winners and six other WNBA first-round draft picks on the bench.
Napheesa Collier had re-entered the game midway through the third quarter, and with the University of Connecticut senior forward on the floor, the Americans began to finally show some life. So Staley stayed with what was working and she was rewarded for her faith.
Collier was here, there, and everywhere down the stretch, contributing a key rebound basket and two free throws in a game-closing 22-6 run as Team USA defeated Canada 74-68 in an exhibition game before a crowd of 3,258 at Webster Bank Arena.
"When it was so close at the end of the game, I knew that I didn't want to be the one to let my team down," Collier said. "So I wanted to try to make every play, complete every pass where it should be, and do things like that to help us win. I understood where certain people wanted the ball and when they wanted it. We are starting to learn about each other and where we are going to be successful so we tried to use that to our advantage today."
Collier finished with five points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal in a team-high 23 minutes. In the final seven minutes, she had four points, four rebounds and two assists, including a lead pass to A'ja Wilson that tied it with 4:57 left and two free throws with 19.7 seconds to go that gave the Americans their biggest lead.
She and Oregon junior Sabrina Ionescu, who was added to the national team pool last week, are the only collegians bidding for roster spots on the United States team that will take part in the FIBA World Cup in Tenerife, Spain, Sept. 22-30. After an impressive effort in last Wednesday's Red-White scrimmage in Columbia, South Carolina, and her showing Saturday, there is no doubt that Collier is getting every opportunity to earn a place on the final 12-player roster.
"It is really important because we start our players developing loyalty so young," USA Basketball women's national team director Carol Callan said. "Stewie (Breanna Stewart) started when she was 14. So there is a natural progression. You just keep going. Napheesa has been with us as part of the national team for the whole year. What that does is it gets them comfortable when it really is their time. So then it isn't so hard being thrown into something like this.
"She held her own. It's not like she is not going to be on this team. She is in the mix for it, and we will see what happens."
Up next for Team USA is an exhibition against Japan in Washington, D.C. on Monday night. The Americans will practice in the nation's capital Wednesday then will head to Antibes, France, for a pre-World Cup event with Canada, France and Senegal.
No one knows how far Collier, who played for Staley on the gold medal-winning 2014 U-18 and 2015 U-19 national teams, will go and even if she'll even make the trip to Europe. The St. Charles, Missouri, residence is going a day at a time.
"I'm playing to make the team," Collier said. "I'm going to work as hard as I can and show them what I can do. I just worked really hard this summer, and obviously practice makes you more confident. I came in knowing that I needed to work as hard as I could. The worst thing that could happen is they cut me, and that is expected anyway."
She's determined to make that decision hard on the selection committee. Team USA has had one player with collegiate eligibility remaining on its last three World Cup teams with UConn's Stewart (2014) and Maya Moore (2010) and Tennessee's Candace Parker (2006).
Collier and Wilson were first off the bench for Team USA midway through the first quarter. While Collier was in an attack mode, she was in a rush and not rewarded for her aggressiveness.
"I saw how physical they were playing so I was trying to beat them off the drive a little bit," Collier said. "I think I was going too fast because I knew how physical they were being. Once I slowed down it got a lot better."
That came in the fourth quarter. Over the final 10 minutes, Staley substituted only once -- bringing in guard Layshia Clarendon for Odyssey Sims to join Collier, Wilson, Elizabeth Williams and Kelsey Plum.
"Obviously the group that was out there gave us what we needed," Staley said. "I did think about subbing, but they were playing so well together that I figured I would just let them finish the game out."
The comeback also got the crowd more involved and one of the biggest roars of the night came when Collier converted an offensive rebound with 6:09 left.
Leading the cheers were Collier's UConn teammates, who rose to their feet.
"I just feel so much support," Collier said. "I think the whole team came so it was just so cool to see them here cheering for me. It's a long drive. I just love my teammates."
In the final minutes, she found herself guarding ex-UConn teammate Kia Nurse. While she finished with a game high 22 points, the Hamilton, Ontario, native had just two free throws in the final eight minutes during the Americans' surge.
The comeback kept a streak alive for Team USA, which has not lost on home soil since Nov. 7, 1999.
Whether Collier comes back to campus this week, next week, or after the World Cup, the experience she's had in camp and with the professionals she's played alongside will only benefit her.
"The level of aggression and the level of intensity they play with all the time is a lot different than in college," Collier said. "So bringing that back to UConn will really help. I don't think anyone in college plays that way. So if we can do that it will help separate us even more from other teams.
"It's been such an honor to play with such professionals and such great players. Learning from them has been a great experience."
And she's not done yet.