RIO DE JANEIRO — The scores of the United States’ women’s basketball games in this Olympics have been eye opening.
Team USA dismantled Spain, 101-72, here Saturday at Carioca Arena I, cruising to a sixth consecutive gold medal in a game that looked like just another mismatch against the best team in Europe. The United States averaged 102.1 points in this tournament, just short of the record 102.4 points the great 1996 team averaged, winning all eight of its games by an average of nearly 40 points.
“It’s amazing isn’t it? I mean when you think, that’s 20 years,” U.S. national coach Geno Auriemma said. “You know the first one was ‘96 and here we are 2016. It’s mind boggling when you think about it what this team has been able to accomplish. There is such a level of expectation, there’s such a level of respect for the people at the very top
We’re doing stuff that may never be done again.”.
This could be the last moment in the international sun for 31-year old guard Diana Taurasi, 35-year old incomparable point guard Sue Bird and 37-year old forward Tamika Catchings, who have all played a huge role on four Olympic gold medal teams with their work ethic and unselfish leadership. Auriemma put the three veterans on the court at the beginning of the fourth quarter with the game under total control, then took them out one last time with 5:44 to play so they could get some well deserved applause from an appreciative crowd.
I think it was a very emotional time,” he said. “When you’re around these players and you’re around Sue and Diana and Tamika, and you know that this may be their last and you’re able to send them out, it’s like graduating seniors back home,” Auriemma said. “And at the same time, you’ve got three young players who’ve never been here before. They get to go home with their first gold medal. ever.
”There’s just a lot of emotions running through our team, and running through our locker room.”
Taurasi, who led Team USA with 21 points, once again played like the most dominant player in the world, making 5-of-7 threes and contributing three rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals in 26 minutes. Bird, the incomparable point guard, was questionable for the game with a strained knee capsule suffered in Tuesday’s quarterfinal against Japan, but still managed to play 16 minutes. Catchings, the 12th player on the deepest and possibly the best women’s team in U.S. Olympic history, offered up six hard working minutes.
This game marked the end of Catchings’ Olympic career. She is retiring at the end of the WNBA season. Taurasi and Bird have hinted that this will be their final Olympics although both could still return in four years in Tokyo. The three joined Lisa Leslie and Teresa Edwards as the only Olympians to win four gold medals.
“It’s been hard. I keep hearing, ‘This your last Olympics. This is your last one.’ You kind of have to put that aside and enjoy every moment,” Taurasi said. “You don’t want to get caught up in that and forget all those the good times. I really treated this like my first one. I acted like I had never been here. Every practice, every bus ride, every dinner. I made sure to enjoy it all.
“You play these eight games and you want to win so bad. The one thing we didn’t do is we didn’t take any possessions off. We played every single game like it a gold medal game and that’s why I think you see everyone is emotionally and physically spent right now. And that takes a certain character team and individuals. I’ve never been a part of anything like this.”
This United States’ team, which defeated Spain by 40 in pool play, plays beautiful, dominant basketball. “We have an All Star team where everyone plays up to their potential. That man, our coach, just finds a way to put things together,” Taurasi said, suggesting this might be the United States’ best Olympic team ever.
This United States’ team, which featured 12 players with a combined 20 Olympic gold medals and defeated Spain by 40 in pool play, plays beautiful, dominant basketball. They trailed for just over 11 minutes in the entire Olympics and the biggest deficit was just four points — 6-2 to France. They never were down after the first quarter and with the exception of the semifinal win over France all the games were pretty much after 20 minutes.
Auriemma had five of his former UConn players– Taurasi, Bird, center Tina Charles, guard Maya Moore and forward Breanna Stewart– on this team and there was one point when he had all five of them on the court. “I was looking for movement and I put Stewie in to try to get some movement,” he recalled. “After one up and down, I was like “Oh, Geez, I hope we play well. I’m going to hear this stuff if they don’t.’
Team USA wound up creating separation by going on a 16-3 run with that group that turned a close game into a 49-point halftime lead. “I hope somebody got a picture of that because I want to send it out to recruits,” he said with a smile.
Maybe this team is Haley’s comet, but, based on their relentless assault of Spain and other teams throughout this tournament, it appears the gap between the United States and the rest of the world is growing, not shrinking.
“Things go in cycles,” Auriemma said. “It’s very difficult to stay at a real high level. We have an organization in the United States– USA Basketball– that is committed in so many ways– emotionally, financially in the effort to win gold medals. That probably accounts for a lot of our success. We also have college basketball and that helps our players grow over their four years.
We don’t dominate as much in the 17, 18-year old level. A lot of teams in the rest of the world are way farther advanced than we are. But the college experience really helps our players prepare, as does playing overseas. So for every for every Brazil that isn’t very good, Canada is coming on. For Every Russia that isn’t as dominant now, Spain has been in the finals of the 2014 World Cup and this Olympics. For every Australia that struggled here, there’s a Serbia that advances to the semi-finals.
“Those other countries will come back. The Russians won the 18-anbd-under European championship last year. They were great. Right now, we’re at a real high level that maybe no one has ever seen before. That’s not necessarily because the rest of the world is getting weaker. Women’s basketball is getting stronger. In this tournament, if you watched all the game, there were so many close games. Australia, the No. 2 team in the world, got knocked out in the quarterfinals. France, who finished second in the 2012 Olympics, lost to Serbia
“If you just took us out of the tournament, this would be an amazing tournament. But, unfortunately, we’re not going anywhere.”