July 28, 2015
CHEKHOV, Russia – In a town named for a Russian playwright, a University of Notre Dame freshman played her part in a sporting drama. An Indiana native, raised in the heartland of American basketball, Ali Patberg (Columbus, Ind./Columbus North) brought her skills to the world stage for the first time as a member of the USA Basketball Under-19 National Team. On Sunday, she capped off that experience by helping the United States secure its sixth consecutive gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championship.
A debutante in international basketball circles, Patberg represented her country admirably, averaging 3.7 points and 4.6 rebounds in 17 minutes per game throughout the seven-game tournament. Considering the whirlwind adventure Patberg went on to don her first USA Basketball uniform, it was a worthy performance.
Patberg initially was named an alternate to the U19 national squad in May after the USA Basketball trials in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She returned to the Notre Dame campus and was attending summer school when USA Basketball Women’s National Team director Carol Callan called at the end of June – one of the 12 players on the American roster was injured and like a baseball pitcher out of the bullpen, Patberg was summoned, ready and willing to embrace an opportunity to play for her country.
On July 1, Patberg packed her bags and headed out to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for a week-long training camp, consisting of two-a-day practices and a pair of scrimmages against the USA Pan Am Games Team. In Colorado, Patberg had a chance to play against a future Notre Dame teammate and fellow Indiana native, junior forward Taya Reimer (Fishers, Ind./Hamilton Southeastern), who was a veteran member of the Pan Am Games squad. The two USA squads split their two scrimmages, and the fact the teenagers beat the older collegians in one of those Colorado matchups may be a talking point when Patberg and Reimer return to campus this fall.
Upon completion of training camp, the USA U19 squad travelled to Murcia, Spain, for an exhibition tournament against U19 national teams from Spain, Australia and Canada. Team USA would sweep all three contests on the Iberian Peninsula, with Patberg averaging 5.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, including seven points each in wins over Australia and Canada.
This tournament served as ideal preparation for Patberg and USA Basketball as the team readied for the U19 World Championships in the bustling Moscow suburb of Chekhov, 25 miles south of the Russian capital.
In an eight-day period from July 18-26, competing against the best youth teams in the world, Patberg and her USA U19 teammates posted a perfect 7-0 record, culminating with Sunday’s 78-70 win over host Russia in the gold medal game in front of a highly-partisan crowd at the Chekhov Olympic Sports Palace.
In securing the victory, the Americans had to erase an eight-point second-half deficit, the only time Team USA trailed during the entire tournament. Patberg, who had posted near double-doubles earlier in the knockout round against Argentina (11 points, nine rebounds) and Canada (seven points, nine rebounds), earned the confidence of head coach Dawn Staley, who played the Fighting Irish freshman nearly 10 minutes during the crucial second half when the game still hung precariously in the balance.
In pulling on the USA Basketball jersey, Patberg etched her name in a pantheon of Notre Dame players who have represented their countries at the FIBA U19 World Championship.
In 2007, South Bend native Melissa Lechlitner (’10) garnered gold with Team USA in Bratislava, Slovakia. Two years later, another South Bend product followed suit, as Skylar Diggins (’13) helped a USA Basketball squad led by current Fighting Irish associate head coach Carol Owens to the gold medal in Bangkok, Thailand, defeating another future Notre Dame All-American, Natalie Achonwa (’14) and Canada along the way. More recently, in 2013, current Fighting Irish sophomore forward Brianna Turner (Pearland, Texas/Manvel), then a high school senior, kept Notre Dame’s USA Basketball U19 tradition rolling going by winning gold in Lithuania.
Patberg called the experience humbling and quickly noted how fortunate she was to earn the chance to wearing her nation’s colors.
“It was unreal,” she said. “It has been a blessing to be only one of 12 players selected to represent the United States at the World Championship.”
Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame’s Karen and Kevin Keyes Family Head Women’s Basketball Coach, shared Patberg’s enthusiasm.
“I’m excited about Ali playing for USA Basketball,” the Fighting Irish Hall of Fame coach said. “It was a great experience for her to be able to compete with and against some of the best young players in the world.
“I love when our players have a chance to represent their country,” McGraw added. “It’s great for our fans and recruits to see how many of our players have been able to play for USA and Canada basketball.”
Participation in the U19 World Championships has often served as a pathway to the Olympic Games, something Achonwa knows all too well, having played for Canada at the 2012 Summer Games in London. Patberg wouldn’t mind that opportunity, but she has a more focused approach, heading back to her college campus.
“Playing in the Olympic games is a goal of mine, but first I want to win a national championship at Notre Dame,” Patberg said. “I like to set short-term goals.”
FIBA inaugurated the U19 World Championships in 1979, although the women did not start competitive play until 1985. Initially called the Junior World Championships, the tournament ran every four years until 2005. FIBA now holds the event every two years.
In a curious twist, the United States is the only country in the world that does not adhere to the FIBA international rules of basketball, although the NCAA has adopted several rule changes for the 2015-16 season, including 10-minute quarters and two bonus free throws upon the fifth team foul in each period.
Yet, it’s not the rules, but the style of play that taught Patberg the most during her USA Basketball experience.
“The level of play is much more physical than I was used to,” she said. “Each country has a different style, so that took time to get accustomed to. I liked the way the Australians play as they are constantly moving without the ball – just like coaches always tell us to do!”
Patberg thoroughly enjoyed her sojourn overseas this summer, and certainly enjoyed the new friendships she has made while playing for Team USA. However, she’s quick to show her school spirit, even half a world away.
“I’m so proud when I tell my teammates that I am going to Notre Dame next year,” Patberg stated emphatically.
After successfully navigating both the University’s summer bridge program and a month overseas with USA Basketball, Patberg will return to South Bend next month for the start of the fall semester. Up until now, she has only spent a few weeks on campus, but she already has been amazed by the friendly and communal spirit for which Notre Dame is renowned worldwide.
During summer school in June, just before she departed for national team duty, Patberg was hustling across campus to turn in a paper to a professor before office hours finished. Out of the blue, a fellow Notre Dame student, whom she did not even know, asked her where she was headed in such a hurry.
“To Decio (Hall), to hand in a paper by 3:00!” Patberg shouted as she raced by.
“You’re not going to make it,” the stranger called out. “Here, take my bike. Leave it at Decio. I will pick it up later. Go!”
For Patberg, it’s moments like these, and the memories of winning gold with Team USA, that have made the summer of 2015 one she will not soon forget. In fact, it’s been one heck of a ride.
– by Liam Canny, special correspondent