The USA Basketball women’s national team has largely said all the right things about the field they faced in these Summer Olympics. They haven’t taken their lack of otherworldly depth of opposing rosters for granted nor have they coasted to the point of sloppy arrogance on the floor. Yet, with Australia and Canada both losing in the quarterfinals of the knockout round, their most direct challengers (if one could call them challengers) were not available to give the ladies a bit of a push. Yet, couple a knee injury to their floor general with a better than expected team in France, and the Americans took a slightly bumpier road to the gold medal game than they hoped for.
The semifinal matchup versus France was a display in depth. However, it wasn’t shown in the customary blowout fashion where their bench could reel off over 50 points per game in their own right, as they had done in the previous six games. Instead, with Sue Bird having to miss the semifinal due to a sore knee, head coach Gene Auriemma put Seimone Augustus into the starting lineup and handed off the majority of the distribution duties to Diana Taurasi. The idea of that was to keep the rest of the reserves in the same flow, primarily keeping Lindsey Whalen in the same rhythm coming off the bench.
The United States averaged 30 assists per game prior to the semifinal, but without Bird, they only notched two dimes in the first half. The awkwardness without Bird showed early as perhaps in overcompensating, the Americans slowed down their tempo, forced their shots and didn’t move as crisply as normal. France, with some very good defense in the first half, didn’t help matters as they played passing lanes well for 12 steals. Isabelle Yacoubou (14 points, 5 rebounds) led the offense, but that strong defense couldn’t hold once the US started getting ball movement in the third quarter.
Spain needed a bit of luck to get here, thanks to a frantic final minute of its quarterfinal win over Turkey, but they are guaranteed to medal for the first time ever thanks to a strong frontcourt led by Alba Torrens. The battles at power forward (Spain’s Laura Nicholls and USA’s Tina Charles) and center (Spain’s Astou Ndour and USA’s Brittney Griner) will be worth monitoring. Nicholls has been able to work in the paint fairly well in the tournament, and against the Serbs she notched her second double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Charles, one of the leading WNBA MVP candidates, has to not only keep Nicholls off the boards, but make the absolute most of her touches as at best, she is the third option on offense for Team USA instead of in the primary role with the New York Liberty.
Ndour is one of the few players who Griner won’t tower over, and she’s been able to assert herself on offense as well. How Griner, who has run into some foul trouble in Rio, defends the interior will set the tone just as much as the Americans’ lead guard play in the final.
Torrens, however, can be a real test for Team USA. In the second preliminary game, she notched 20 points against the Americans by not only efficient shooting, but drawing fouls (making all seven of her free throws). While that was a blowout win for the United States, seeing the same team a second time in a tournament always makes for interesting adjustments. It won’t just be how the US defends her, but how will Torrens hold her own against any player Auriemma sends her way between Charles, Griner or even the reserves such as Sylvia Fowles, Elena Delle Donne or Tamika Catchings.
On the flip side, it’s worth wondering how the Spaniards will deal with the backcourt of Bird and Taurasi if Bird is cleared to play. The two UConn Huskies legends have a kinetic energy between them when running the offense. With Bird’s quickness, her teammates are more apt to find their best spots on the floor, and no one has done it better than the Phoenix Mercury star. While she can score anywhere on the court, Taurasi has essentially been Team USA’s best perimeter threat, averaging four three-point makes in the seven games played, and providing balanced offense with 15.8 points per game. However, against France, it took a little while for her to get going as she played more of the floor general rather than long-range sniper.
Of course, even if Taurasi has an off game, Spain would have to corral Maya Moore. Good luck with that.
The women’s national team hasn’t been challenged by anything except its own expectations for the past 32 years. This is the result of losing just three international contests since 1984 and not a single Olympic game since 1992. It’s also what happens when you are the most dominant entity in the entire US Olympic contingent. Yet, each incarnation of the team has written its own story through Summer Olympics and World Championships.
So what will be the story here for these women? It was previously said that this is the best frontcourt the program has ever boasted in international play, though the backcourt of Bird and Taurasi have forged the team's identity a bit more than the forwards and centers. Who leads the way may not even matter on Saturday, presuming that the overwhelming favorites finish the job ahead of them as expected. Over three decades of global basketball dominance seem to make the stories of each incarnation of the program nearly indistinguishable. Yet with a sixth straight gold medal on the line against some familiar foes, perhaps this 2016 team will find a way to stand out against their historical contemporaries.