DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Individually, Andrew Anderson, Jakob Butturff, AJ Johnson and Kristopher Prather are some of the best bowlers in the world, and they've all proven they can deliver in the most pressure-packed situations.
On Sunday night, it was up to first-year Team USA head coach Bryan O'Keefe to decide which of those players would shoulder the responsibility for the team's gold-medal hopes in trios at the 2021International Bowling Federation Super World Championships.
The entire event came down to a ninth- and 10th-frame roll-off with Korea, after the teams each won one game in the best-of-two final, and O'Keefe's instincts helped Team USA successfully defend its trios title with a 57-49 win.
It was a split-second decision that forced him to consider countless factors, including who had the best look at that moment, whose look may be going away and how one player may feel after a missed spare moments before.
O'Keefe made the call and immediately got 100% buy-in from the four players. Two frames later, they were celebrating Team USA's second consecutive trios title on the sport's biggest stage.
"Sometimes, gut moves are the best ones to go with," O'Keefe said. "I just had a weird feeling. AJ has been clutch the whole time, and even though I think he was the only one who didn't strike to start, I just had a feeling. His last couple shots were pure and no-doubters. We put Jakob first, so he could strike and not feel as much pressure, and then turned it over to AJ."
Butturff and Johnson struck on three of their four opportunities, but a 2-4-8 leave on Johnson's final delivery meant Korea's Kang Heewon could win the title with two strikes and eight pins. Kang struck on his first shot but crossed over and left a 6 pin on his second offering.
The championship round of the trios event took place on an open-air two-lane setup inside Expo 2020 Dubai, which is hosting the semifinals and finals of each discipline at the 2021 IBF Super World Championships. It all is being broadcast live at StrikeCloud.com.
In the opening game of the final, Team USA struck four times in the first five frames, while Korea suffered two open frames. The defending champions took the game, 235-203.
Kang did not bowl in the first game, but he was inserted into the lineup for Game 2 and helped Korea to a 269-236 victory. Both teams started with a spare and six consecutive strikes, before Butturff left, and missed, a 7 pin in the eighth frame.
In a team environment, trust and commitment can be as important as talent, and the teammates sent Butturff and Johnson onto the approach with the utmost confidence.
"Coach Bryan looked at us and asked us how we were feeling, and we all looked him and told him we felt confident," Johnson said. "He made the decision to go with Jakob and I, and there was 100% total trust and commitment from the group, which was incredible."
Team USA advanced to the final with a clean 200-178 win over the Czech Republic, and Korea got there with a 265-222 win against Sweden.
The event started at the nearby Dubai International Bowling Centre, where all teams bowled 10 games of qualifying, three games of round-robin match play and single-elimination quarterfinal matches.
For the first time at the World Championships, trios utilized a modified Baker format, which puts an emphasis on teamwork and strategy.
The format called for the leadoff bowler to also bowl the fourth, seventh and 10th frames, while the next team member handled the second, fifth and eighth frames. That left the third, sixth and ninth frames for the final team member.
Johnson, who also excelled in the team environment at McKendree University, is motivated by how much closer the team has become over the last two weeks, especially while navigating the variety of Baker formats.
"This team, all week, has been easy to bowl for," Johnson said. "We've all shown up in moments and done what we needed to, and I was fortunate to have the ball in my hand at the end. I don't know if I can describe all the feelings. There are moments you live for or look forward to as a kid, and that's it right there."
The women's trios title also was decided Sunday night, and the Korean women were able to come away with the gold medal.
They cruised past Guatemala in the championship match, 2-0 (223-195, 246-206).
In the women's semifinals, Guatemala topped Colombia, 222-189, and Korea eased past Singapore, 244-196.
Team USA was the two-time defending champion in women's trios but was eliminated in the quarterfinals this week.
The Korea men and Guatemala women claimed silver medals Sunday, while the Sweden and Czech Republic men and Colombia and Singapore women earned bronze medals for making the semifinals.
The custom venue used to determine the champions at the 2021 Super World Championships was built in the Sports, Fitness and Wellbeing Hub at Expo 2020 Dubai, a multicultural event that includes exhibits from more than 190 countries and will last six months.
Thousands of curious Expo 2020 visitors have been able to get a closer look at the sport of bowling and some of its top competitors.
Prior to Sunday's trios conclusion, all 31 men's teams and the 20 women's teams completed the 10 games of qualifying, before the respective fields were cut to the top 16 for match play.
The advancing teams were divided into four groups, each with four teams, and they all bowled three games of round-robin match play Thursday night.
Points were awarded for each win in match play, and the top two teams in each group, based on points, advanced to the bracket-style quarterfinals.
Due to the late finish of the trios event, the medal ceremony was postponed until Monday afternoon.
Anderson won the event in 2018 with EJ Tackett and Kyle Troup.
Johnson and Butturff were part of the Team USA squad that won the team event in 2017. Prather is competing in the World Championships for the first and also teamed with Anderson this week for a bronze medal in doubles.
The medal ceremony will be followed by the women's, men's and mixed team semifinals and finals, which will close the door on this year's tournament in Dubai.
The Colombia women and Italy men are the reigning team champions, but neither advanced to the medal round this week. The mixed team event is new in 2021.
Doubles, trios and both team events all featured variations of the Baker format from start to finish.
Additional medals will be awarded in Dubai to the most valuable athletes and top-performing federations.
The IBF Super World Championships is the first of three events being held in Dubai.
The inaugural IBF Para Bowling World Championships is sharing the stage this week, with the event's first singles champions being crowned Sunday night during the trios coverage.
The IBF Masters (formerly Senior) World Championships is up next and will help wrap up the visit to the United Arab Emirates. Competition is scheduled to get underway Nov. 18.
IBF is providing livestream coverage and complete results for all three events at StrikeCloud.com.
For more information about IBF, visit bowling.sport.