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After four days of trials May 23-27 that began with 124 girls on the court on May 23 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (USOTC) in Colorado Springs, Colo., the moment had come.
Out of 33 players invited, and the other 91 that applied to try out, the 40 or so girls that made the final group gathered on Monday earlier this week like nervous movie stars getting ready to hear who won the Oscar. The names of the 12 players selected by the USA Basketball Women’s Development National Team Committee to be on the Under-16 national team were called off alphabetically.
Most girls basketball analysts from around the country had given 6-foot-3 Mater Dei of Santa Ana guard/forward Katie Lou Samuelson from the Class of 2015 a more than decent chance to make the team, and she did, as one of six incoming juniors from around the nation.
However, before they got to the Ss, the Is were first, and with them came a huge surprise. It came in the form of the naming of the only “applicant” or “walk-on” as us old-timers call it, from the Class of 2016 to be named to the team — Sabrina Ionescu of Orinda Miramonte. She was also the youngest chosen by over four months.
“When they said Sabrina, I had a flash that maybe there was another Sabrina, but when they called out my last name, my heart jumped and my head fell in my hands. It was the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Ionescu told Cal-Hi Sports during lunch break at school on Tuesday.
“I didn’t think I would make it but I was going to try my hardest, leave everything on the court, and have no regrets,” continued the 5-foot-10 Ionescu. “If I didn’t make it, I would come back next year.”
Last summer, the Cal-Hi Sports Girls of Summer caravan warned you about getting to know how to pronounce the last name of this talented girl of Romanian ancestry, who was a close runner-up for State Freshman of the Year to San Diego Horizon’s Dijonai Carrington, who unlike Ionescu, was invited to the trials, but not selected.
So, here’s another reminder of the pronunciation of Ionescu, its “yah-ness-coo.”
“I really felt she was good enough and that she had a shot because the versatility of her game is so conducive to a tryout situation, but I really didn’t think she’d make it,” said Miramonte head coach Kelly Sopak, who also coaches Ionescu in the summer with Cal Stars.
“Her advantage is she’s a point guard that can play the ‘2’ and she’s long and can block shots,” continued Sopak. “For girls that are mostly shooters you have to touch the ball.”
Without telling her what USA U16 head coach Sue Phillips of Archbishop Mitty (San Jose) had to say about her game, and why Phillips (who is not involved in the selection) thought she’d made it, we asked Ionescu why she felt she was chosen.
“I brought a lot of energy to the court. I thought I was very vocal. I was a team player, tried to involve other players, encouraged everyone else and I had some good passes and steals.”
“She’s special,” Phillips said not once but three times in the short phone interview while changing planes in Denver on the way home.
“She makes her teammates better, fills the stat sheet, works real hard, takes directions well and was responsive to the directions I gave her, and was a quick learner. Just a pleasure to coach,” Phillips continued.
“Sabrina really put it together. She really impressed the committee.”
Samuelson, on the other hand, came to Colorado with high expectations, from a school that has a history of producing international-level talent, and trying to do something her older sisters couldn’t do, and that’s make the team.
“When they only choose 12 kids out of over a hundred, I don’t know if there’s any locks in a group like that, but I know she wanted it real bad, especially after her sisters didn’t make it – and Katie Lou broke through, and deservedly so. She’s playing for her country and that’s the ultimate,” Mater Dei head coach Kevin Kiernan said.
Bonnie and Karlie Samuelson, both now at Stanford, didn’t make the team, but Katie Lou is Mater Dei’s fourth USA team member and fifth national team member overall.
Current Connecticut star sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and USC sophomore Alexyz Vaioletama were the first to make a USA team, and then came current USC freshman Jordan Adams, while current UCLA freshman Nirra Fields was a member of the Canadian National Team.
“She knows she’s a great shooter, but she knows she has to get stronger and more versatile,” continued Kiernan.
The knock on Katie Lou has been she is most dangerous on the perimeter, having made almost 100 three-pointers last season, and not as tough inside as a girl her size should be.
The committee must have seen the same thing we saw last summer and last season, Katie Lou Samuelson has gotten a lot tougher inside, and her body and game at this stage is beginning to resemble WNBA rookie star Elena Delle Donne.
“Katie Lou showed her versatility and that she’s not one dimensional,” Phillips remarked. “Plus, she has experience playing at the highest level. That all impressed the committee.”
The girls get two weeks off before returning to the USOTC to prepare for the FIBA Americas U16 Championship that will include North American entries Canada and the United States; as well as 2012 U15 Centrobasket top finishers Puerto Rico, Mexico and Costa Rica; and from the 2012 South American U15 championship Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina.
The top four teams will qualify for the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship. The two-time defending FIBA Americas U16 champion USA team opens on June 19 against Brazil.
“I’m just thrilled to work with this group of 12 young women,” remarked Phillips. “It’s going to be something. We’re big, long, can defend, and shoot the ball.”
And they have two of the Golden State’s top underclass players on the squad.
For a complete roster and schedule for the FIBA Americas U16 Championship, go to www.usabasketball.com.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend