Payton Verhulst stood on the winner’s stage, moments away from receiving the gold medal she had earned for helping the Team USA Women’s U16 national squad knock off Canada 87-37 in the 2019 FIBA Americas gold medal game in Chile last week, when she remembered something.
The tournament’s MVP had yet to be announced.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know who’s going to win that,’” said Verhulst, an incoming junior guard at Bishop Miege. “It could have been literally anyone on our team. Everyone played so well.”
As it turned out, she was doing some self-reflection.
Verhulst was named the MVP of the 2019 FIBA Americas U16 Championship tournament, and she was one of five members of the All-Tournament team. Her 18-point outing in the Americans’ title-clinching win over Canada was enough to tip the scales.
The Miege standout, who before the tournament said she had fielded scholarship offers from nearly every school in the country besides UConn and Notre Dame — titans in the women’s basketball realm — also etched her name in a couple of record books on her way to MVP honors. Verhulst averaged a team-best 14.5 points per game and set USA U16 women’s competition records for field goals made (38) and attempted (75).
Ask Verhulst herself, though, and she’ll deflect credit. She says she didn’t know the MVP honor existed, not until the finale against Canada. She just enjoyed meeting and playing with some new teammates for a while.
The award was still pretty nice, though.
“It’s still settling,” Verhulst said. “I haven’t wrapped my head around the fact that I’m a gold medalist and everything. It was just awesome. I loved spending time with those girls, and it’s sad that I’m not going to be able to play with them now, but we all go to club season and we all go to the same tournaments, so I’m hoping that I’ll see them there.”
With Verhulst’s help, USA’s club never had much trouble marching to the gold medal. The Americans went a spotless 3-0 in preliminary play, and when the games began to count for medals, they never let up. Team USA rattled off a 107-32 win over Brazil in the quarterfinals, a 103-30 rout of Puerto Rico in the semifinals and finally a 87-37 shellacking of Canada in the title game.
Verhulst’s point totals in those games, respectively: 4, 10 and 18. She scored plenty, but she didn’t always have to. That, she said, was part of what she enjoyed most in Puerto Aysén — her teammates were the best in the country in their age group.
“I wasn’t used to playing with people who were as good or better than me, and who would be able to go score whenever,” Verhulst said. “So having people who could do that and not having to worry that I had to do it all myself was really (nice). I think that’s why we all played so well, because it was really refreshing to play with new people and play with really good people.”
The Americans’ easy wins weren’t always easy to navigate, though. Their average margin of victory was plus-70.5. In fact, Team USA’s 114-19 win over El Salvador in preliminary competition garnered a healthy dose of attention for the Americans’ sheer dominance.
Verhulst, who recorded 15 points and three rebounds in the win, said there was a plan in place for those types of games.
“We had talked about this before, because we knew there would be a moment where we could be beating a team by a decent amount,” Verhulst said. “I always thought about, like, ‘What do we do in this situation?’ And (head coach Mark Campbell) was like, ‘The biggest thing you can do is just respect your opponent, and the way to be a respectful rival is to give it your all and never back down — not to go out there and chuck up 3s, just mess around, but to give them your best to the very end and not back down.’”
There are two sides to that coin. The Americans may have outclassed every team they played, Verhulst said, but they didn’t stumble across those blowout wins. They had to bond and practice together to make sure they happened.
“I would say there was maybe a difference in talent, or even just height, athleticism and stuff,” Verhulst said. “I didn’t know how all the other teams trained, but I know that we deserved to play as well as we did for how hard we trained and how many days we put into this.”
That also meant spending time together and exploring things outside their comfort zones. Verhulst had never been outside the country, let alone Chile, so getting to know roommates Saylor Poffenbarger, Sonia Citron and Olivia Miles made things even more fun, she said.
Even the lamb she had to eat.
“I wasn’t a huge fan of it, but I feel like it was one of the biggest meats that was there,” Verhulst said, laughing. “It was like, ‘Oh. Either eat this or you don’t have anything.’ So I grew to like it a little bit more.”