Women & Sport: Former basketball stars for Rutgers to debut at FIBA World Cup

The WNBA season has come to a thrilling end, with the Las Vegas Aces earning their first championship title under the leadership of the legendary Becky Hammon.

Given the growing viewership, the farewells to some of the game’s greatest players this season and the looming announcement of expansion teams (hopefully) sometime this year, it’s an exciting time for women’s basketball. And that excitement doesn’t have to end with the WNBA season now over.

The 2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup just kicked off in Sydney, Australia, featuring some of the best athletes in the world. The tournament runs through next weekend, with the United States vying for its fourth consecutive title and plenty on the line. The event’s winner gets its ticket punched for the 2024 Olympic games in Paris.

The tournament will surely feature some great basketball over the next week. It also marks, in a lot of ways, a new era for Team USA, with half its players making their debut for USA Basketball. Some of those new faces have close ties to New Jersey, including notable alumni from Rutgers' women's basketball.

In a recent interview with ESPN, longtime Team USA members and 2022 AP WNBA Player of the year Breanna Stewart said: “We’re in a little bit of a transition. But it really gives an opportunity for young players to come in and show what they’ve got and help take USA Basketball to the next level — and understand that everybody wants to beat us. Nobody wants us to win gold. And still, our goal every time that we are playing is to win the entire thing.”

This year’s roster includes former Scarlet Knights teammates Betnijah Laney and Kahleah Copper. The two played in their first WNBA All-Star game in Las Vegas last year, where the WNBA stars faced the U.S. women’s national team to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics the following month. The World Cup marks both their debuts for USA Basketball in a major international competition.

Copper now is a guard/forward for the Chicago Sky, where she has played since 2017. In the 2016 WNBA Draft, Copper was drafted No. 7 overall by the Washington Mystics, where she played her rookie season. She played all four years at Rutgers, where she ranked third on the university’s career points chart, behind former WNBA stars Cappie Pondexter and Sue Wicks.

This year marks Copper’s first time playing for the World Cup team. In a recent first person diary account for The Associated Press, she said not making the U.S. Olympic roster was motivation to make it this time around. “There’s 12 great players on this team and everyone’s working hard, doing what they are supposed to do,” Copper wrote. “You know that there [are] other greats waiting to come in after you.”

Laney is now a guard/forward with the New York Liberty. She was selected 17th overall by the Chicago Sky during the 2015 WNBA Draft, and has had stints with Connecticut, Indiana and Atlanta Dream. Laney has also played abroad during her career. In 2020, she was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player.

The last few years for the former Rutgers star have been on an upward trajectory, as detailed in an ESPN profile last year, going from being cut from one team to now playing for Team USA. In Sydney, Laney will play alongside another teammate — New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu.

It’s not just the players who have ties to the Garden State. The team’s head coach, Cherly Reeve, grew up in Washington Township in Gloucester County, where she graduated from the local high school and was part of the school’s first team to make it to the state finals. Reeve is currently the head coach and general manager of the Minnesota Lynx, and has had a successful career as a player, coach and executive.

The national team already had its first two games of the tournament, defeating Belgium 87-72 and Puerto Rico 106-42. Team USA faces China next at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. The tournament streams on ESPN+.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Women & Sport: NJ-bred talent will be on court at FIBA World Cup