USA Women's Basketball: An Appreciation of Team Dominance After It Continued in Rio
By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)
The recently completed Rio Olympics felt like an extended farewell party to greatness.
While some of the once-in-a-generation and transcendent talents in the universe such as Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps provided lingering memories for the final time on the Olympic stage, the United States Women’s Basketball National Team also left a lasting impression by completing an extended victory lap and winning its sixth consecutive gold medal.
It was also a final salute for the golden triumvirate of Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi, who added their fourth gold medal to their impressive collection after helping Team USA defeat Spain, 101-72, last Saturday. Forming the foundation of one of the greatest teams in history, they are three of five women’s basketball players in history with at least four gold medals.
Watching Team USA’s sensational run to gold during the Olympics was like viewing a great movie that you never wanted to end.
Amid a lightning storm of flashbulbs and beneath the exultation of their latest accomplishment, there was slight sadness in knowing that a team like this will never be assembled again.
It was one of the reasons why head coach Geno Auriemma wept as he left the court and Bird stood off in a distance from her jubilant teammates soaking in the festive atmosphere while reflecting on her amazing 16-year journey with Team USA.
“We just did something that’s pretty incredible,” Bird said. “When you get together as a team and you know you only have a month to do something, it’s remarkable in so many ways that we were able to put this together and do it in a fashion that leaves no question marks. This put us on the map as arguable one of the best teams, and we had fun doing it.
“We saw Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley, Tina Thompson, these are Hall of Fame players, we saw them not care about points, not care about rebounds, not care about any stat and only care about the gold medal. And we learned from that. I think hopefully we’ve done them proud as well, because that’s exactly how we played in each of the Olympics that we’ve been in. We just go out there and try to win.”
That’s why this team was special. Most of the time members of Team USA approached each practice and possession like rookies trying to make a training camp roster, not like the superstars that they are. They tossed aside their egos and focused on the ultimate prize, which was refreshing.
In addition to the dedication, discipline, domination and determination, there was selflessness in heaping doses from the insane 40 assists on 46 baskets in a win over China to two-time WNBA scoring champion Angel McCoughtry taking two charges in the gold medal game and to Catchings relishing her role despite averaging 10.3 minutes per game.
“It’s just special,” Maya Moore said. “It’s one thing to do something unexpected, but it’s another thing to do what you’re expected to do – year after year, game after game, quarter after quarter. And, this team didn’t get complacent.
"I think that’s a sign of a true champion, someone who loves the game and plays for the right reasons. Every quarter that we stepped on the court, we respected the game, we respected each other and we did everything we needed to do to deserve this gold.”
The uninformed would say that Team USA had no competition because it topped 100 points six times and enjoyed a ridiculous 37.2-point margin of victory while extending its Olympic winning streak to 49 games. Overall, Team USA women has won eight gold medals and 66 of 69 games all-time in Olympic competition. While such thinking is disrespectful, it’s also short-sighted and wrong.
The women’s basketball tournament featured a record 26 current WNBA players, surpassing the previous record of 22 in 2000. That meant there were 14 WNBA current players on other rosters not including former WNBAers Leilani Mitchell and Elizabeth Cambage of Australia, which was upset in the quarterfinals. Team USA wasn’t beating up on scrubs.
“With this tournament, if you watch all the games, how many overtime games, how many close games, the fact that Australia is the number two team in the world and they got knocked out,” Auriemma said. “France played in the gold medal game in 2012 and they lost to Serbia. So a lot of good stuff is happening. If you just took us out of the tournament, this would be an amazing tournament but unfortunately we’re not going anywhere.”
It would be unfair to the other women’s teams, namely the 1996 squad, to rate this one as the best of all-time as each was unique. Personally, 1996 is when I fell in love with women’s basketball and that squad will always have a special place in my heart.
I enjoyed watching that squad compete and take out its wrath on the rest of the world. I still have the image of Staley, Teresa Edwards and Ruthie Bolton doing cartwheels across the Georgia Dome floor after beating Brazil.
Katie Smith mentioned earlier on Dishin’ & Swishin’s amazing and popular podcasts that their teams in 2000 and 2004 were better defensively.
The comparisons are for others.
This squad stands alone for how the veterans and rookies coalesced during this rampage through Rio. One of those rookies, Elena Delle Donne, had some shining moments despite missing a game because she was poked in the eye during pre-game warmups. Some would argue that was the only duress this team faced.
“That’s something I learned being a part of this, because it does look easy from afar,” Delle Donne said. “That’s kind of what I always thought watching it from afar, but being a part of it, it’s tough. It’s really tough. It’s demanding, and you have to be at your greatest self every single day for this team. Like I said, it’s been really hard. It’s not easy at all.”
Japan made Team USA work hard in the quarterfinals as did France in the semifinals. Spain was competitive as well.
Japan had the audacity to score the first four points of the second half and slice Team USA’s lead to 56-50. As great teams do, Team USA turned up the heat and sprinted to finish with a mesmerizing and breathtaking burst that resulted in a 110-64 victory.
“It wasn’t as easy as sometimes it looked,” Auriemma said. "These last two games especially with France and today against Spain. These are very good teams that we’re playing, and you could see that it wasn’t just a cake walk, that it was a struggle.
"Then finally, because of our depth and because of the experience on our team, we were able to separate ourselves. But the way we played, we respected our opponents and we respected the game itself, we earned a lot of respect from a lot of people around the world, and I’m really proud of that.”
As the tournament progressed, more people seemed to gain an appreciation for how special this team was. They had fun, enjoyed one another and savored every moment. That’s why this farewell seemed sadder than most because America will never be blessed with a team like this ever again.
Although the future is bright with great young talent, which should keep the good times rolling, it will be different though.
Moore, Tina Charles and McCoughtry will still be in their prime in 2020 in Tokyo while Delle Donne, Breanna Stewart and Brittney Griner will be more experienced. They will form the core of the next Team USA team tasked with winning a seventh consecutive gold medal to match the men’s basketball team’s standard of excellence from 1936-1968.
Maybe the Minnesota Lynx trio of Seimone Augustus Lindsey Whalen and Sylvia Fowles will play in 2020. One thing we know is we won’t see Catchings again and most likely Taurasi and Bird too.
“Not many people have an opportunity to play in the Olympics, one, let alone two, three and four,” Catchings said. “To be among that group, select individuals that have represented the game so well on and off the court, and to be one of those, I’m blessed for all the opportunities I’ve had and all the lives that I’ve been able to impact by using the platform of basketball. And, all the places I’ve gone. I was thinking about that and am just thankful for the opportunity.”