Stevens' trip to Russia brings home more than a medal
Azura Stevens has played in front of tough crowds before—Carmichael Auditorium against North Carolina, the XL Center against Connecticut and Purcell Pavilion against Notre Dame, just to name a few.
The FIBA U19 World Championship gold medal game brought that to a new level. Facing off against the Russians on their home court, Stevens and Team USA had to deal with an especially raucous home crowd.
“There [were] a ton of people there. They even brought part of their military, so they were really full, and we only had a couple of parents there, so it was really like a true road game,” Stevens said.
Despite the tough environment, the Americans would prevail. Stevens scored 10 of her 18 points in the first quarter and added six rebounds as her team overcame an early deficit en route to a 78-70 win—Team USA's sixth straight gold medal.
The sophomore averaged 11.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game over the course of the tournament’s seven games, bringing home a wealth of experiences on and off the court in addition to her medal.
“It was surreal, just to win especially the type of game that was,” Stevens said. “It was just awesome pulling up each other’s hands at the end, being able to say that we came out on top representing the United States.”
Like many of the seven games the Americans won in Chekhov, Russia, last month, the gold medal game was a physical one. Officiating at the international level allows players to display much more aggression on the court than in a typical NCAA game, which took Stevens by surprise.
Making her first appearance on behalf of the stars and stripes, Stevens took some time adjusting to the physicality. But once she did, she became a force to be reckoned with.
“She got hit, she got pushed, she got shoved,” said Duke trainer Summer McKeehan, who also made the trip to Russia and earned her fourth gold medal. “She might as well have been playing the number five as physical as it was in setting screens. She was getting hit on rebounds and holding her ground—I thought she did very well with all of that. Coming into her sophomore year, she’s less afraid of contact than she probably was coming in.”
Stevens' experience dealing with the the rowdy crowd at the gold medal game will be a boon to a young Blue Devil squad that will be thrown into unfamiliar settings this season. The Raleigh, N.C., native also learned how to quickly find chemistry with a team full of new faces—not entirely unlike the team she will join back at Duke, which will feature five freshmen in the backcourt.
“It was crazy. We could barely hear. I remember times in that game where Coach [Dawn] Staley would yell out a play, and I couldn’t hear, so I was just like ‘Well, I’ll just try to run around and set a screen or something because I don’t know—I can’t hear,’" Stevens said.
When it came to cultural experiences, Stevens took an approach of leading by example. She used her one semester of Spanish to speak with the locals in Spain during the American's exhibition slate, including her future teammate, freshman Angela Salvadores.
Stevens encouraged her teammates to explore and experience the local culture, and was the self-proclaimed first to try all of the foreign foods.
“I was just trying to soak it up any way I could,” she said. “The first time we got into Russia, they had a soccer game across the street, I think it was a D-league or something. I was the first one wanting to go because I was in a different country and just wanted to experience everything I could. We went out to eat and I tried everything that they brought out, just different things like that trying to make a lot of memories.”
Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.