Commentary

Sylvia Fowles fuels U.S. past Belarus

Now U.S. team's center turns attention to Australia and Lauren Jackson

Originally Published: September 27, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Uh-oh, thought some observers of Team USA on the eve of the FIBA World Championship for Women. Sure, you have to look past a huge heap of talent to find potential flaws or weak points for the Americans. But they weren't impossible to find … or at least wonder about. How good was the United States' interior attack and defense?

No Lisa Leslie (retired), no Candace Parker (injured), no Tina Thompson nor DeLisha Milton-Jones (both still playing but near the end of their careers).

[+] EnlargeSylvia Fowles
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty ImagesSylvia Fowles led the U.S. women with 15 points in the 107-61 win over Belarus on Tuesday.

Stalwarts such as Tamika Catchings and Swin Cash, both 31 and experienced veterans of international play, were on the squad. But much of the rest of the post crew -- Asjha Jones, Candice Dupree and WNBA rookies Tina Charles and Jayne Appel -- would be playing in their first major international competition with the senior national team.

Which left a lot of focus on the biggest member of the U.S. squad, who came into the tournament with probably the biggest question mark. Would 6-foot-6 center Sylvia Fowles really be able to play effectively in the world championship after having surgery to repair the meniscus in her left knee?

She acknowledged it has been a process, but she never doubted for a second she'd be able to participate -- and make an impact.

"I knew for sure that I'd come back," Fowles said by telephone Tuesday from the Czech Republic. "I had the same thing done in college, and I came back within three weeks. For people who don't know me, I'm very stubborn."

And in Tuesday's game, she looked a lot like the usual "Big Syl" as the United States clobbered -- there's really no other word for it -- Belarus, 107-61. That sends the undefeated Americans into Wednesday's much-anticipated game with fellow unbeaten team Australia (2:15 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

Fowles led the Americans with 15 points and tied with Candice Dupree for the team high in rebounds, with six. The former Chicago Sky teammates -- Dupree was traded before this past season to Phoenix -- did their part to contribute to Team USA's blistering 68.3 shooting percentage, as Fowles made all five of her attempts from the field and Dupree hit 6 of 7.

After starting the second, third and fourth games of this tournament, Fowles came off the bench in the fifth game. She played more minutes, 19, than in any of the previous contests.

[+] EnlargeLauren Jackson
Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty ImagesAustralian Lauren Jackson has never beaten the U.S. women. The two meet -- without a medal on the line, for a change -- Wednesday.

"It was tough over the first four games that we played, and I think that was more so me trying to rush to get back to where I normally would be," Fowles said, crediting U.S. assistant coach Jennifer Gillom of the L.A. Sparks for her tutelage and encouragement. "Coach Jen was always telling me what I needed to do, and things I needed to strengthen."

Of course, during the WNBA season, Gillom and the rest of the league's coaches are constantly trying to figure out how best to attack Fowles' strengths, which this season led her to all-WNBA first-team honors. Alliances change to country for this event, though, and quick-developing chemistry is a primary goal of the U.S. team.

Few players are any better at that than Fowles, a naturally gregarious and friendly teammate. What doesn't come quite as easily to her is being a voice of experience among the interior players, which she didn't have to be in the 2008 Olympics with the likes of Leslie, Thompson and Milton-Jones still on the U.S. team.

Fowles was the leading scorer (13.4 ppg) and rebounder (8.4 rpg) on that gold-winning Olympic squad, even though she didn't start. She ended up being a rock for the Americans without having to go into the Olympics feeling there was a lot on her shoulders.

But now, even though she's a week from turning just 25 -- her birthday is next Wednesday -- Fowles is one of the vets. So there was pressure on her entering this world championship.

"It is very different, because I had players in the past that I looked up to and were teaching me the ropes," Fowles said. "Now, I have to somewhat be a leader, and it's kind of scary. But I have to keep it in perspective.

"I don't necessarily enjoy it, but it's something I need to do. I'm willing to do anything to help the team. So if I have to take on that role, I'll do exactly that."

Injuries limited Fowles to 17 games in her WNBA rookie season of 2008 and 24 games in 2009. This past season, though, she was able to play in all 34, averaging 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.

But, again, the Sky did not make the playoffs, finishing last in an ultracompetitive Eastern Conference. Chicago coach/GM Steve Key resigned Sept. 10, and Fowles said she has no idea whom the franchise might choose as a coaching replacement, or if that person will have the dual role of general manager.

I had players in the past that I looked up to and were teaching me the ropes. Now, I have to somewhat be a leader, and it's kind of scary. But I have to keep it in perspective. I don't necessarily enjoy it, but it's something I need to do.

-- U.S. center Sylvia Fowles

"I still think we have a lot of potential with the Sky," she said. "I enjoyed my time with Coach Key, but we have to look ahead. Hopefully the next coach coming in will help us do what we have to do to get a playoff spot. It's all out of my hands … I haven't really talked to anybody about it since I heard about Coach Key leaving. When I get back [to the United States] next week, I hope to hear something."

A name that has been floated is Fowles' former coach at LSU, Pokey Chatman, who left that program under, shall we say, difficult circumstances in March 2007, Fowles' junior season. Chatman is currently coach of Spartak Moscow, for which Fowles played last winter/spring and won the EuroLeague championship.

"I don't have any control over it, but I will say she is a coach who knows what she's doing," Fowles said. "If it happens, good luck to her and I'm ready to play."

That tends to be Fowles' general attitude toward things: Just tell her what you need, and she'll try her best to do it. Wednesday, the Australian team will bring a lot of size, including 6-5 Lauren Jackson, the WNBA's reigning MVP, and 6-8 teenager Liz Cambage.

Team USA defeated Australia 89-56 in an exhibition Sept. 10 in Hartford, Conn., and Cambage had 18 points and seven rebounds. Then when the Aussies beat Team USA 83-77 in an exhibition in Spain on Sept. 17, Cambage had 17 and five. Neither Jackson nor Fowles played in either of those games.

Fowles knows what it's like to be a big teen post player with lots of eyes on you; it was that way for her from her first game at LSU.

"I can remember being in those shoes," Fowles said of Cambage. "And being at that age, it's a big role to take. I know she's got a lot to learn, but she's a good player.

"With Lauren -- she has great moves, but you have to just play your game and not let everything she can do get in your head. She's a great player, and she's going to make shots. But you have to make up for it on your end."

Fowles is ready for the challenge, and she said her physical condition currently is fine.

"I have no pain right now," Fowles said, although … that isn't the same thing as not being weary. But that's of no consequence, according to Fowles.

"Hey, everybody is tired at this point," she said. "But when you think about being in just a handful of players who were picked out of a big group of people to play for this team … we're very blessed.

"To have the opportunity to compete for our country, you kick all that -- how tired you are -- to the side. You just want to win and represent your country the correct way."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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