LAS VEGAS — In the fourth quarter, Arike Ogunbowale was the best player on the court between 24 of the best players on the planet.
Ogunbowale, the Dallas Wings star, scored nine of her game-high 26 points in the final quarter and Courtney Williams iced the game with a last-minute layup to push Team WNBA over Team USA 93-85 in the 17th WNBA All-Star Game Wednesday at the Michelob ULTRA Arena.
Ogunbowale, who said on Tuesday she would be content with just 10 points, won the All-Star MVP award with her red-hot shooting performance in her first all-star appearance in front of a crowd of 5,175.
“It just turned out I scored a little bit more,” Ogunbowale said.
That award was the most normal aspect of an unusual All-Star Game, which was anything but the friendly exhibition between the WNBA’s best that most all-star games become.
Team WNBA outlasted the Olympic team with better defense and sharper shooting.
Team USA’s duo of Brittney Griner and Sylvia Fowles were outrebounded by Team WNBA’s Jonquel Jones, 14-10. Jones, one of three Connecticut Sun players on the WNBA all-star squad, also scored 18 points.
Griner of the Phoenix Mercury led Team USA with 17 points.
Instead of lackadaisical, or perhaps non-existent, defense and individual offensive attacks, both teams ran offensive sets, set screens and even double-teamed opponents throughout the game. On Tuesday players promised this would be the case, and they didn’t disappoint.
This was true for both Team USA and Team WNBA, as the game was tied 13 different times and saw 10 different lead changes.
“It was really competitive,” Team USA’s Sue Bird said. “This, right from the tip, felt different. It had an intensity about it.”
Still, it was evident from the beginning that Team USA was making sure it would be ready for Tokyo and showcased that increased competitiveness and intensity in the first few minutes.
The national team burst ahead to an 11-4 lead just minutes into the game and prompted perhaps the earliest timeout in the history of all-star exhibition games. Team WNBA rallied back to cut the national team lead to 15-11. Team USA led 28-25 after the first quarter.
Team WNBA took a 40-39 lead midway through the second quarter, which is when Team USA reinserted Bird and Griner into the game. After a fast-paced final minute of the first half, Team WNBA went into halftime leading 44-43.
“Everybody said we wanted to come in and give them a good game,” Jones said. “We executed it very well.”
Still, neither team would let the momentum sway in one direction for too long.
When Team WNBA took a 53-48 lead in the third, its largest of the game, Team USA’s Breanna Stewart scored five straight points on a 3-pointer and a layup to tie the game at 53-all.
“I never saw so much defense in an All-Star Game,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert joked after the game.
That set the stage for Ogunbowale’s sharp shooting. She hit five of her 10 3-pointers and shot 55.6% from the floor to claim the MVP award.
After ESPN’s Holly Rowe presented her with the award, Ogunbowale gave a shoutout to the late Kobe Bryant, whom Ogunbowale considers her idol.
Williams capped Ogunbowale’s performance with a baseline layup with 36 second seconds left, coming off a quick fake that gave her separation for an open layup, which gave her 15 points on the night.
“‘Rike was going crazy,” Williams said. “For a minute, she had us on her back and she carried us to the finish line.”
The sensational performances by Ogunbowale, Jones and Williams didn’t leave the Olympians feeling distraught.
Bird said the loss taught Team USA that it wasn’t a full team yet, and that it wasn’t as simple as pairing the 12-best players and immediately clicking and winning games.
Diana Taurasi of the Mercury, who is recovering from a hip injury and did not play Wednesday, said it was a positive that Team WNBA pointed out a few things for the Olympic team to improve on as it prepares for the Summer Games in Tokyo at the end of the month.
Team USA players, like Stewart, Griner and her Mercury teammate Skylar Diggins-Smith, noted that defensive rotations, along with defense in general, was something the Olympians want to improve on before the Games.
“We’re just a work in progress right now,” Taurasi said. “We’ve got a long way to go, and that’s a good thing for us.”
For Jones, who said she wanted a win Wednesday to hopefully claim a transitive gold medal, can wait and watch to see if she can claim her bragging-rights gold.
“I don’t get a gold medal yet,” Jones said. “Now they got to go handle their business.”
This article originally appeared on St. George Spectrum & Daily News: Team WNBA defeats Team USA in 2021 WNBA All-Star Game