Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and USA Basketball seek seventh consecutive gold medal

Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and USA Basketball seek seventh consecutive gold medal

    Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi sit in the front row of the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team photo, 2004 edition, wearing bright red jerseys. Bird, then age 23, and Taurasi, 22, were the two youngest players on the team. Dawn Staley, then 34, was one of the oldest. It was Staley’s last of three Olympic appearances, and she was the U.S. flag-bearer for the Athens Games. Bird and Taurasi were the kids, former UConn teammates trying to soak up every bit of wisdom around them.

Seventeen years later, all three are again in the team photo. Staley is head coach of Team USA as it prepares to play in the Tokyo Games. Bird, 40, and Taurasi, 39, are the two oldest players and seek their fifth Olympic gold medals. Bird will be a U.S. flag-bearer this time.

History is on the line as the U.S. women seek their seventh consecutive Olympic gold and ninth overall. Staley is the first Black woman to coach the team and could join the late Anne Donovan in winning the Olympic tournament as both a player and a head coach. Bird and Taurasi look to tie former U.S. star Teresa Edwards with five Olympic gold medals.

“The deeper we get into our careers, and the things we’ve been able to do — especially together on court — we always say we’re lucky,” Taurasi said. “We’re lucky we get to do it together. It always makes these journeys that much more satisfying when it’s all over.”

As the Americans prepare for their Olympic opener against Nigeria on Tuesday, we look at the dynamic duo that again leads Team USA, how the rest of the roster stacks up and which countries could provide the U.S. women’s toughest competition.

Bird, Taurasi and the drive for five

Bird, who has won four WNBA titles with the Seattle Storm, and Taurasi, who has led the Phoenix Mercury to three WNBA championships, enter the Tokyo Games 32-0 in Olympic play.

The youngest players on this year’s U.S. squad, A’ja Wilson and Napheesa Collier, are both 24 and making their Olympic debuts. They just shake their heads when asked if they can imagine still playing four Olympics past Tokyo.

“That’s future Hall of Famer status right there,” Wilson said.

Collier, who went to UConn and knows the Bird/Taurasi legacy well, said after the team’s arrival in Tokyo, “I’ve been to training camps with them. Now actually being here and getting ready to play games with them is pretty surreal.”

Edwards, a point guard, played in her first Olympics in 1984, when she was still in college at Georgia. She and Staley were Olympic teammates in 1996 and 2000, and then Staley passed the leadership torch to Bird and Taurasi in 2004.

What does Taurasi remember from her first Games? In the U.S. team’s opener against New Zealand, then-coach Van Chancellor was upset with the starters and looked to Bird, Taurasi and another former UConn player, Swin Cash, to shake up things. The U.S. women won the game 99-47.

“He cusses us all out, and we’re like, ‘We haven’t even taken our shooting shirts off,'” Taurasi said. “And we go in and save the day. That’s the story I remember from Athens.”

Bird and Taurasi have won at every level, and their commitment to stricter diet and exercise regimens is part of how they’ve stayed at the top of the sport for so long. Bird won an NCAA title in 2000, they won one together in 2002, and then Taurasi won two more in 2003 and ’04. Both were WNBA No. 1 draft picks, in 2002 and ’04. Last year, Bird became the first player in WNBA history to get titles in four different decades.

This season, sternum and hip injuries have limited Taurasi to seven WNBA games. She hasn’t played since July 3, missing all three of the Americans’ exhibition games recently in Las Vegas. Staley said Wednesday from Tokyo that Taurasi has been practicing and looking good.

“She just raises the level of our practice, our ability to make great basketball decisions — passing, shooting the basketball, just her whole morale,” Staley said. “She is high energy and just takes our practice to another level.”

Both Bird and Taurasi have had clearly defined roles for Team USA through the years. Bird is a pass-first point guard — she averaged 4.4 assists in the 2016 Olympics and 4.5 in 2012 — and a better perimeter defender than people give her credit for. Plus, she’s an endless source of calm and direction.

“While the process is going on, you’ve got to enjoy it,” said U.S. guard Jewell Loyd, an Olympic first-timer who plays alongside Bird with the Storm. “That’s something I’ve always noticed with Sue. She enjoys every moment she’s able to be on the court.”

Taurasi does everything, but she’s most known for being one of USA Basketball’s more reliable scorers. She led the Americans in scoring in 2016 (15.6 PPG) and 2012 (12.4) and averaged 10.9 in 2008 and 8.5 in 2004.

Both players have said this is their last Olympics, which is one more thing to motivate Team USA.

“We’ve got to get Sue and Diana to the mountaintop,” Staley said.

The world’s most dominant post game

As important as guards have been to the U.S. women’s success over the years, post play has set them apart and been one of the biggest factors in the Americans’ gold grab. The only loss the U.S. women have suffered in either the Olympics or FIBA World Cup in the last 25 years came in the 2006 World Cup, when Lisa Leslie, the team’s best post player at the time, was out because of a family emergency.

Forwards or centers have led Team USA in scoring in every Olympics (Leslie did so three times) except the 2012 and 2016 Games, when Taurasi did it.

This year’s team has a loaded frontcourt: Sylvia Fowles is back for her fourth Olympics, Tina Charles is playing in her third, and Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart are in their second. Wilson, last season’s WNBA MVP, and Collier, the 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year, are first-time Olympians.

The 6-foot-4 Stewart, a two-time WNBA Finals MVP, has looked just as adept playing the 3, or small forward, as she does in her usual position at the 4, or power forward.

And that’s why Team USA’s 70-67 exhibition loss to Australia last Friday was so surprising. Without Liz Cambage, who withdrew from the Olympics, Australia wasn’t expected to be an equal match for the Americans inside. In fact, on paper, no team is.

Falling to Australia might have been the jolt the U.S. women needed, because their post game looked much more locked in during their subsequent exhibition win against Nigeria on Sunday.

“The way that we were playing on Sunday was different from the previous games,” Stewart said. “We were the aggressors early and often. We pounded the ball in the paint, and then from there we were able to get whatever we wanted on the outside. I think we had a lot of poise and composure, and just found the open person.”

Fowles and Griner are two of the best low-block centers ever in the women’s game. Charles has expanded her shooting range, as has Wilson. Both Stewart and Collier already had the 3-pointer as a strong part of their repertoire before they got to the WNBA. The group’s rim protection, post defense and rebounding are also excellent.

They’re not infallible, but if they play to their ability, they’re going to be hard for any team to shut down offensively no matter the defense, and defensively they should be difficult to score against.

“The chemistry is coming together, especially with the posts,” Griner said. “We play against each other so much that we know each other’s tendencies. Just knowing when somebody’s gonna roll, when they’re gonna flash. Where to place the ball for them, relying on each other on defense.”

Griner’s biggest goal in Tokyo is to win her second Olympic gold medal. But there’s another thing she would like to accomplish.

“I definitely want to throw one down,” Griner said when asked if she hoped to dunk in the Olympics.

Will the U.S. defense continue to be an X factor?

If you’ve watched the U.S. women anytime over the past 25 years, you might wonder: Which players on this team can make that momentum-shifting defensive play to get a steal and easy transition basket if the Americans need it?

Over the past six Olympics, players like Staley, Tamika Catchings, Bird, Ruthie Bolton, Sheryl Swoopes, Yolanda Griffith, Maya Moore and Angel McCoughtry all did that.

The players most likely to impact games that way this year are all expected to come off the bench: Collier, a forward, and guards Ariel Atkins and Skylar Diggins-Smith. Atkins and Collier are tied in eighth place in steals this WNBA season (1.4 per game). Diggins-Smith is averaging 0.8 steals, but she has a knack for making big plays on sheer hustle alone.

What are Team USA’s biggest challenges in Group B?

This year, the tournament is set up differently. Instead of two groups of six teams, three groups of four will compete in the preliminary rounds. So there are three group-play games instead of five, then the quarterfinals, semifinals and gold- and bronze-medal games.

The U.S. will play France, Japan and Nigeria in its group. France is the only country in this group besides Team USA to have won an Olympic medal: The French took silver in 2012, losing to the United States in the final. France is fifth in the FIBA world rankings behind the United States, Australia, Spain and Canada.

France was fifth in the 2018 FIBA World Cup; the French could make it a close game with the Americans. Former UConn standout Gabby Williams — who was drafted fourth overall by the Chicago Sky in 2018 and was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks in May — is the most recognizable name on the French roster. Sandrine Gruda (Connecticut Sun and Sparks, 2008-17), Marine Johannes (New York Liberty, 2019), Endy Miyem (Minnesota Lynx, 2018) and Valeriane Ayayi Vukosavljevic (San Antonio Stars, 2015) also have seen time in the WNBA.

Two players taken in this year’s draft might join the WNBA in the future: Iliana Rupert was picked in the first round by the Las Vegas Aces, and Marine Fauthoux went in the third round to the Liberty. Diandra Tchatchouang, a former Maryland player, was drafted into the WNBA in 2013 but didn’t play in the league.

Japan lost former Storm player Ramu Tokashiki to injury, so the host nation has no WNBA players on its roster. She’s a 6-4 presence whom the Japanese will miss.

Nigeria has been in the pre-Olympic news cycle a lot as it tried to add Nigerian American WNBA players Nneka Ogwumike and Elizabeth Williams to its roster, which could have been a major boost and made Nigeria more of a potential challenge for Team USA. Because of their previous association with Team USA, they were denied the request by FIBA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Chiney Ogwumike, another WNBA player, was provisionally on the roster. But the Ogwumike sister who actually will play for Nigeria is the youngest, Rice graduate Erica Ogwumike.

All the members of Team Nigeria played college basketball in the United States, including Elizabeth Balogun, who is heading into her senior season at Duke after previously playing at Georgia Tech and Louisville.

Australia should dominate Group C

The most successful team in this Olympic tournament after the United States is Australia, which has medaled five times: three silvers and two bronzes. And after beating the U.S. women in Las Vegas last week, Australia should be headed into the Olympics with a lot of confidence as the top team in Group C.

What they won’t have, though, is Cambage, the 6-8 Aces center who led all scorers at 23.8 PPG in the 2018 FIBA World Cup, in which Australia won a silver medal. Cambage had a physical and verbal altercation during Australia’s closed scrimmage with Nigeria on July 13 and subsequently pulled out of the Olympics, citing mental health concerns. The Australian federation is still investigating the scrimmage incident.

On paper, there’s no way the Aussies are better without Cambage, who is averaging 14.6 points and 8.9 rebounds this season for Las Vegas and at her best is one of the most dominant low-block players in the women’s game. The team’s chemistry and how Australia responds to her absence will be one of the most interesting things to watch in this Olympic tournament.

Sara Blicavs replaced Cambage on the Australian roster. That leaves five WNBA players competing this season who are on Australia’s roster: Rebecca Allen (Liberty), Ezi Magbegor (Storm), Leilani Mitchell (Washington Mystics), Alanna Smith (Mercury) and Stephanie Talbot (Storm).

Four others previously have played in the WNBA: Cayla George (Mercury and Dallas Wings 2015-18), Jenna O’Hea (Sparks and Storm, 2011-16), Tess Magden (Mercury, 2015) and Marianna Tolo (Sparks, 2015).

And Australia is coached by Phoenix’s Sandy Brondello, who had a long playing career with the Opals and also competed in the WNBA for five seasons.

“What makes Australia so tough is they’re a team that’s super disciplined,” Stewart said. “They have so much chemistry; they’ve been playing with one another for a while. It was great to match up with them before we got to Tokyo. If all goes well on both sides, we’ll match up with them later on.”

Who will prevail in Group A?

Group A seems like a pretty wide-open battle among Canada, Spain and Serbia, and could provide some of the best games of group play. The Canadians’ top finish in the Olympics was fourth place in 1984. Canada continues to build its national team program and has three WNBA players who had prominent college careers: Natalie Achonwa (Notre Dame/Lynx), Bridget Carleton (Iowa State/Lynx) and Kia Nurse (UConn/Mercury). Team Canada also has three current college players: Laeticia Amihere (South Carolina), Aaliyah Edwards (UConn) and Shaina Pellington (Arizona), all of whom appeared in the women’s Final Four this spring.

Spain finished with the silver medal and Serbia with the bronze in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and the Spaniards also got bronze in the 2018 FIBA World Cup. The most experienced WNBA player on either side is Spain’s Astou Ndour-Fall, who is in her sixth season in the WNBA, now with Chicago.

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