To say Megan Walker has struggled with her 3-point shot at the FIBA U-19 World Cup would be an understatement. The University of Connecticut freshman wing was 1-for-14 from behind the arc in the United States' first five games in the event.
But with Team USA surging late in the second quarter half of its semifinal game with Japan Saturday, Walker delivered a dagger from the corner.
Her trey at the halftime buzzer gave the Americans a 14-point lead and was part of a 21-1 run that carried into the third quarter. Walker finished with 11 points as Team USA advanced to the gold-medal game with a 73-66 win over Japan in Udine, Italy.
"Megan Walker came off the bench in that first half and really gave us good minutes," Team USA coach Suzie McConnell-Serio said. "She was a great spark in making things happen. Early on, we were getting fouled on jump shots and getting to the free-throw line. I thought our starters got us off to a great start, and then we had players off the bench in Chennedy (Carter) and Megan that gave us that spark."
Team USA (6-0) will take on Russia Sunday at 3 p.m. (EDT) in Udine in a rematch of the 2015 final. Russia (6-0) built a 26-point halftime lead Saturday and coasted past Canada 65-41. Japan and Canada will play for the bronze medal Sunday.
University of Oregon sophomore Ruthy Hebard had a double-double of 24 points and 14 rebounds while Texas A&M freshman Carter added 19 points to pace the Americans against Japan.
A Walker bucket gave Team USA a 24-22 edge after one quarter. Japan was still within two with 3:57 left in the second quarter before the Americans went on their decisive burst.
Hebard and Carter had four points each, then Walker converted a rebound and nailed her 3-pointer to make it 47-33 at halftime. Four points apiece by Hebard and University of Texas sophomore Alecia Sutton to open the third quarter put Team USA ahead by 22.
"I feel like it was our energy off the bench," Walker said of the key to Team USA's runs. "We focused on our defense, not sucking in to help and we were closing out on shooters."
It was 65-43 going to the fourth quarter. Japan did score eight unanswered points to open the final period but Team USA maintained a comfortable advantage though Japan hit a pair of threes in the last 1:08 to account for the final margin.
Hebard finished 11-for-15 from the floor and eight of her rebounds were on the offensive end.
"She was great," Walker said. "Ruthy shows up big for us every night. This was a big game, and I'm happy for her."
UConn sophomore Crystal Dangerfield had three points, shooting just 1-for-9, two rebounds, two assists, and two steals in 25 minutes. Walker chipped in four rebounds in her 20 minutes. UConn Class of 2018 recruiting target Christyn Williams did not play.
A USA win Sunday would make Dangerfield the fifth player to win two U-19 world championship gold medals, joining former UConn stars Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck, South Carolina All-American A'ja Wilson, and ex-Baylor guard Alexis Jones. Dangerfield played and had four points and five assists off the bench in the 78-70 win over Russia in the 2015 final in Chekhov, Russia. Wilson had 30 points while UConn's Napheesa Collier added 13 points and 14 rebounds.
"It was like the whole country of Russia was in that gym cheering against us," Dangerfield recalled. "I want my teammates to understand that it is really us against the world."
Team USA and Russia have two common opponents at the World Cup -- Mali and Puerto Rico. The Americans beat the pair by an average margin of 47.5 points while Russia's average winning margin is 29.5 points.
Russia's 6-foot-4 duo of forward Raisa Musina and center Maria Vadeeva combined for 35 points and 27 rebounds in the victory over Canada on Saturday. Both are also veterans of the 2015 final and both scored in double figures against the Americans two years ago. In Italy, Vadeeva is averaging 17.2 points and 13.3 rebounds per game while Musina is averaging 14.0 points and 13.0 rebounds.
"I know they are going to try to use them as much as they can," Dangerfield said. "Their offense ... Pretty much everything runs through them, especially with them being on the team two years ago. So, they know what this is about and I know they are going to be looking for payback. They want that gold medal, too, so we are going to have to come ready to fight tomorrow."
Musina and Vadeeva each have three seasons of professional basketball under their belt, two in the EuroCup and the 2016-17 season in the EuroLeague. They have also had stints with the Russian senior national team.
"When you have a tandem like that, with a great post presence like (Vadeeva) is - she's unreal," McConnell-Serio said. "She's so talented around the block. Watching her tonight even, she stepped out and hit a three. She's strong and she's versatile. One on one, she is very difficult to contain. And then Musina, she's very smart and can shoot the ball. She has great size and great length.
"It's a great tandem to have, but then they have a supporting cast. They have other guards that can shoot the ball and they have other post players. Their team is very talented, and it will be a very tough matchup for us."