Reigning WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart saved Team USA from a historic defeat Thursday with a buzzer-beating tip-in to stun Belgium, 81-79, in ain Antwerp, Belgium. It was only possible, though, due to a clear and obvious error by the referees.
After gaining possession via a jump ball with 4.5 seconds remaining, Team USA called timeout and set up a play to go for the win. Stewart inbounded the ball to Kelsey Plum, who was initially trapped, but managed to free herself for a pull-up jumper along the baseline. It came up short, but Stewart followed the shot and tipped it back up and in with tenths of a second to spare.
As it turned out, Plum only managed to escape the Belgian trap by stepping on the sideline, as pictures published in Gazet van Antwerpen, a local newspaper, show.
In real time there were rather muted celebrations from Team USA, as the play had to be checked to see if Stewart's effort would count. But following a lengthy review at the courtside monitor, the officials determined her fingertips separated from the ball just before the red lights came on. They could not review the Plum incident, however.
"I saw [Plum's] foot go outside. I'm almost certain she was outside," Belgian guard Julie Vanloo, who finished with a team-high 19 points and recently signed a training camp contract with the Washington Mystics, said via an English translation. "Unfortunately, VAR does not exist here."
Stewart finished with just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting, but came up clutch when it mattered. Her off night epitomized the American performance, as the team shot 41.6% from the field and turned it over 13 times. A 27-of-31 effort from the free throw line and some clutch shots by Napheesa Collier, who finished with a game-high 23 points, were the only reasons they were able to hang around for most of the night.
Utilizing smart ball movement and sharp outside shooting (12-of-29 from 3-point land), and feeding off the energy of their home crowd, the Belgians led for the majority of the game. They were unable to hit enough shots down the stretch, however, with a trio of missed open 3s in the final two minutes standing out.
If Belgium would've held on for the victory, it would've been quite shocking, to say the least. The U.S. has not lost an Olympic or World Cup game since the 2006 FIBA World Championship semifinals, when Russia defeated the Americans, 75-68. Furthermore, according to USA Basketball's record books, a 1980 defeat to South Korea is the only time the women have ever lost an Olympic qualifying game.
Team USA has already qualified for the 2024 Olympics in Paris by virtue of winning the 2022 World Cup, but is participating in the qualifying tournament anyway to gain cohesion and face some high-caliber opposition. They certainly got what they wished for against Belgium, the reigning European champions led by former WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman.