New players, new identity, but same goal: U.S. women’s basketball eyes seventh straight Olympic gold

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Winners of six consecutive gold medals, the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team has achieved a level of consistent dominance rarely seen in sports. But that won’t make their quest for gold at the Tokyo Games any easier.

Unlike other countries’ programs, the U.S. didn’t get weeks or months to play together ahead of the Games, with the 12-player roster first convening last week in Las Vegas for an abbreviated training camp. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage Tokyo, making for an Olympics unlike any even the likes of national team mainstays Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have ever experienced. And this particular U.S. Olympic team features a substantial number of newcomers (six) and is shifting its style of play from the last few cycles.

None of that can shake USA Basketball, though. The gold-medal standard set in 1996 and holding steadfast ever since remains the same.

With a first-place finish in Tokyo, Team USA can make history by joining U.S. men’s basketball as the only programs to win seven straight gold medals in traditional team sports. Its journey begins Tuesday at 12:40 a.m. ET with its opening game against Nigeria in pool play.

The U.S., No. 1 in the FIBA world rankings, may be overwhelming favorites on paper, but that presumption faltered some last week when Team USA went 1-2 in exhibition games. Most eyebrow-raising was their 70-67 defeat at the hands of No. 2 Australia, which was without WNBA All-Star center Liz Cambage.

Team USA ended the week on a good note, though with a 93-62 rout of Nigeria.

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

“I feel like we’ve learned a lot,” said Jennifer Rizzotti, an assistant coach for the U.S. and president of the Connecticut Sun, of the training camp as a whole. “That’s kind of typical that there’s a pretty quick learning curve with a group of this caliber. But just keeping in mind that there’s six new Olympians, and that’s not usual [the 2016 team had three first-timers, the 2012 squad had five]. I think everybody seems a little more relaxed, especially after the win versus Nigeria last week.”

The Nigeria win offered a clearer picture of what the U.S. identity is. It’s about taking advantage of its post dominance, a shift from the more guard-centric Geno Auriemma years. Team USA’s starting front court features seven-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner, reigning WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson and, playing out of position as a small forward, Stewart, one of the world’s most decorated athletes.

Their second unit is just as strong with Tina Charles, who’s on track to break the WNBA’s single-season scoring record, and Sylvia Fowles, who at 35 remains one of the most dominant low block posts and defensive forces in the world.

Still, the guards, including the younger ones who will be looked upon even more as the Bird and Taurasi era is coming to an end, will be required to step up and be more consistent.

“Obviously our strength is at the post, but the reason that things flowed a lot better for us against Nigeria is because we hit outside shots,” Rizzotti said. “It’s no secret formula that it helps when you can play inside-out and it’s harder for people to double us in the post because we have guys knocking down shots on the perimeter.”

The absence of Taurasi, who is overcoming a hip pointer injury, was particularly felt last week. Aside from being an experienced vet (she and Bird are the only backcourt players with Olympic experience), Taurasi brings perimeter shooting and playmaking to a team that suffered in those areas in their Vegas tune-up.

Taurasi, the U.S.’s leading scorer in the last two Olympics, hasn’t played competitively since July 3 and, after fracturing her sternum at the end of May, has only taken the court three times since June. On Thursday, the UConn legend, three-time WNBA champion and five-time Olympian said she’s “hopeful” she can play Tuesday, and that she’s been ramping up what she can do in practice each day.

“It has a pretty big impact,” Rizzotti said on whether Taurasi plays. “And not just because we’ll need to rely on her for scoring. She’s one of the best 3-point shooters in the world, always has been, so she’ll be able to stretch the defense. Similar to what I say about Sue, she knows how to make the players around her better. She moves the ball well, she sees the open guy, she delivers the right pass. So you can’t just guard her with one person because she’s literally able to score in so many ways but she’s able to get us easier baskets.”

The next few days, even the first games, will be crucial for chemistry-building, role-defining and perfecting the small details.

“Sometimes when they’re young like they were last week, they play a little tight and they don’t play like themselves,” Rizzotti said. “But once they’re in that program and they see how the veterans operate, how they walk on the floor, how hard they work for however long we decide to go, you start to understand why there’s a level of success, and that’s from the top down.”

The U.S. may remain the favorites to win it all in Tokyo, but Rizzotti acknowledges the advantage the U.S. has historically had at the Games is shrinking. Countries like Australia, Spain and Canada boast a host of former or current WNBA players.

“[The other countries] continue to get better and better every single time we step on the floor in the Olympics,” Rizzotti said. “We know we have our work cut out for us. It’s going to be a challenge.”

Team USA certainly can’t rest on its laurels if it wants to take home a seventh straight gold. But it can lean on the foundation off which it got here, both the experienced vets who lead the way or the culture of USA Basketball itself, in its quest for history.

“[Even] with talent, you still have to put it together. You still have to make people come in here and play selfless and make sure you put the team first,” Taurasi said, “and I think that culture that’s been built over decades of coming here and really putting yourself aside for the betterment of the team, that’s one thing that is expected the minute you put on a USA jersey.”

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com

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