Opinion: Opener shows path to Olympic gold will not be a breeze for U.S. women's basketball team

·5 min read

TOKYO — For the first time in a long time, the U.S. women’s basketball team came to the Olympics dogged by some doubts.

Not about whether it would fall short of a gold medal, which is still in the realm of believe-it-when-you-see-it. But the stress level it might take to get there has been an open discussion for Team USA, which has six first-time Olympians, relies heavily on a 40-year-old and a 39-year-old in its starting lineup and didn’t exactly look primed for a historically dominant run during its training camp in Las Vegas.

Based on Tuesday’s 81-72 win over Nigeria in its Olympic opener, those questions are still valid.

“You feel the pressure. No doubt about it,” said Team USA coach Dawn Staley, describing a basketball world that is incrementally making life more difficult at these events. “We can’t take any team lightly, nor do we.”

To underscore the extent to which the Americans have been peerless in international women’s basketball, Tuesday was this program’s 50th consecutive Olympic victory and yet just the second in which the margin was fewer than 10 points. So when the result is anything less than an unfettered show of force, it raises eyebrows – even if the bar for this particular team should be significantly lower.

In the lead-up to the Olympics, U.S. players and coaches said time and again that this one would be more of a journey, that the newness of the team meant that it should be judged on whether it’s taking the proper steps toward a gold medal and not against the breathtaking basketball its predecessors often played.

“It’s really the first time we’ve had six first-timers on one team,” said point guard Sue Bird, who confirmed after the game that at age 40 this would be her last Olympics. “There’s always been a good mix of people who’ve been there and done that and then some newcomers who were going to take the torch eventually, so it does feel a little different.”

Team USA player Sue Bird sits on the bench during the game against Nigeria.
Team USA player Sue Bird sits on the bench during the game against Nigeria.

And yet, how different is it supposed to feel without being compelled to reach for an alarm?

While Team USA was never really in danger of losing to Nigeria on Tuesday, it was not the kind of performance either visually or statistically that would suggest there’s smooth sailing ahead.

Outside of a 23-0 run for the U.S. in the second quarter when shots started falling, the Americans were not far and away the better team for much of the game. In fact, Nigeria’s full-court pressure defense gave Team USA such fits, it often looked like there was utter confusion about how to attack or where the openings were supposed to be.

The U.S. coughed up 25 turnovers, allowed 19 offensive rebounds and for a brief moment its 20-point lead at the end of the third quarter had been reduced to 75-67 at the 3-minute mark. The threat only lasted a moment, as Sylvia Fowles hit a floater coming out of a timeout and Chelsea Gray made a pair of mid-range jumpers in succession. But when you zoom out to 30,000 feet, it hasn’t been too often over the course of the last five Olympics that Team USA felt that kind of push late in a game.

“I think it’s just getting used to one another,” said A’Ja Wilson, who led the team in her Olympic debut with 19 points and 13 rebounds. “We see the play and we want to make it, but sometimes it’s not there. We’ll clean those up when we start playing together more.”

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The beauty and the challenge of the Olympics, though, is that all of this is so fleeting. This particular team will only be together for another 12 days and, at most, five games. The minute they arrived in Tokyo, the clock started ticking.

Like their counterparts on the men’s team, the women did not get off to a great start. They lost exhibition games to the WNBA All-Stars and the Australians, and yet they did not suffer the same loss of aura or dialing down of expectations even though it’s clear this is somewhat of a passing-the-torch type of year.

Perhaps the relative struggle against Nigeria will be part of a necessary course correction that allows for something less than winning every game by 30 points. At the same time, within this short window, there’s going to be real pressure to be better than the Americans were on Tuesday because nothing less than the gold medal will do.

“The 50th consecutive win it sounds like a big number and it is a big number,” Staley said. “But I don’t think people really understand what goes into it. They think we show up and automatically win basketball games, but the sacrifice we put into it, the players who continually sacrifice; they could go off and be somewhere else on vacation, enjoying their families, but they make a commitment. Our greatness is because of the players who make that sacrifice.”

Greatness for Team USA at these Olympics may not be as automatic as it seemed in the past. But even extending that win streak from 50 to 55 – the necessary number to take home another gold – will require this team to take a few steps up from what we saw on against Nigeria.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Team USA women's basketball team must keep improving at Tokyo Olympics

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