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GOLD STANDARD: U.S. women still firmly atop basketball world

  • United States' Brittney Griner, left, hugs head coach Geno Auriemma, right, as they celebrate their win over Spain in a women's gold medal basketball game at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Eric Gay

  • United States' Diana Taurasi, left, Tamika Catchings, center, and Sue Bird, right, celebrate with their gold medals after their win in a women's basketball game against Spain at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Eric Gay

  • United States' Diana Taurasi, right, celebrates with head coach Geno Auriemma after the gold medal basketball game against Spain at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Charlie Neibergall

  • Members of the United States basketball team pose their gold medals after their win over Spain in a women's basketball game at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Eric Gay

  • United States' Brittney Griner (15) shoots over Spain's Laura Nicholls (4) during a women's gold medal basketball game at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Eric Gay

  • United States head coach Geno Auriemma talks to his players during a women's gold medal basketball game against Spain at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Eric Gay

  • United States' Diana Taurasi smiles during a women's gold medal basketball game against Spain at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Eric Gay

  • United States' Lindsay Whalen (4) and Maya Moore (7) celebrates with teammate United States' Breanna Stewart (9) during a women's gold medal basketball game against Spain at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) Eric Gay

  • United States team members celebrate on the victory stand after the gold medal basketball game against Spain at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Charlie Neibergall



Washington Post
Sunday, August 21, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO – What must it be like to compete against these women, the dozen who make up the U.S. basketball team? They are tall and strong, quick and agile, skilled and fierce. These Rio Olympics have been defined, understandably, by Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, by Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. The truth: No athletes here are more dominant and peerless than the American women who play basketball.

“I’m in awe,” guard Seimone Augustus said, “all the time when I look around – at everyone.”

Don’t forget that, even after the latest laugher, a 101-72 victory over Spain on Saturday at Carioca Arena that gave the U.S. women’s team its sixth straight Olympic gold medal. The outcome of these games may feel predetermined. The experience, though, is awesome to live through, the basketball wonderful to watch. They have raised standards in almost every way, making them almost unreachable, what with their 49th consecutive Olympic victory.

“We just keep pushing it up higher and higher,” Olympic rookie Brittney Griner said. “I don’t know how high it can go up. We just want it to keep going up. We don’t want it to go down – at all.”

There are so many ways to demonstrate the dominance: They won their eight games by an average of 31.5 points. They shot 58 percent from the floor; their opponents managed to shoot just 37 percent. They outrebounded their opponents by 20.5 boards per game. No other team here, in any sport, delivered in such a fashion. Indeed, the discussion centers more around whether any team ever has.

“Right now, we’re at a real high level,” Coach Geno Auriemma said. “We’re at a real high level that maybe nobody’s ever seen before.”

Part of that is because of the women’s basketball program’s remarkable ability to seamlessly hand off responsibilities from generation to generation. Twelve years ago in Athens, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings were bit players on a squad that featured some of the sport’s legends – Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley.

“We saw them not care about points,” Bird said. “Not care about rebounds. Not care about any stat on the stat sheet.”

That, in turn, became the way Taurasi and Bird and Catchings played on the national team. Saturday, they each won their fourth gold medal. As importantly, they showed the first-time Olympians – Griner, Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne – what qualities it takes to succeed on the Olympic team.

“It’s hard to quantify it with words because there are some things that they do that you can’t even describe,” Auriemma said of the contributions of his three four-time gold medalists. “Some of it is the commitment that they’ve had. The willingness to do it whenever they’re asked to do it. Their passion for the game, their passion for USA basketball.

“They set an example that today, I think, a lot of it is missing. There’s a lot of entitlement out there in sports today. You have three Hall of Fame players that don’t feel like they’re entitled to anything. No matter what they’ve done, they show up every day and feel like they have to earn it.”

That was a common sentiment regarding this medal: It wasn’t given. The Spanish team, which had lost to the Americans by 40 earlier in the tournament, was playing for its first Olympic medal. They knew what they faced.

“They are,” guard Alba Torrens said, “physically perfect.”

That may be close to true. But the U.S. played nearly perfect because the players didn’t see themselves that way.

“You can talk about the 100-point games and the margin of victory,” Bird said. “But we played our butts off.”

That was apparent in the early going Saturday, when Spain actually – get this – led for a few moments. But with Maya Moore scoring 12 first-half points, and Taurasi hitting two 3-pointers in what became a 16-3 run, the U.S. did what was both expected and, frankly, inevitable: took control.

“It wasn’t as easy as, sometimes, it looked,” Auriemma said. “These are very good teams that we’re playing. You could see that it wasn’t just a cakewalk, that it was a struggle. Finally, because of our depth and because of the experience that we have on our team, we separated ourselves.”

They separated themselves Saturday, and won gold because of it. They have separated themselves from the world, because the last time they lost a game at the Olympics, Stewart hadn’t even been born. And they separated themselves from so many of the competitors here with the way they played, the way they performed, the standard they set. It’s hard to imagine any of it being matched.