The USA women's basketball team went 9-0 on their way to winning the gold
medal at the women's World Championship in China. This is the fourth
consecutive major title that the team has brought home, starting with the
'96 Olympic gold, the '98 World Championship, the '00 Olympic gold and now
this. The team had breezed through their first seven games, but fatigue
got to them a bit against two of their toughest rivals: Australia and
Russia. The Russians had an easy semifinal opponent in South Korea while
the US had to battle the Aussies in a game that some had called "the real
gold medal game."
The Duke connection here is that Coach G was invited to be an assistant
for this team under head coach Van Chancellor, the man who led the Houston
Comets to four WNBA titles. There's a quote from her here and a photo of her here. Her job was scouting the USA's opponents, a job she
was quite well-suited for given her previous international experience at
the Jones Cup and her masterful game plans in years past.
The win here was the Americans' 7th gold medal, breaking the tie they
had with the former Soviet Union. The Soviets had a stranglehold on the
title from 1959-1979, until the US finally broke through. It wasn't until that
time when women's basketball in the US became organized to put up a decent
challenge to the state-sponsored Soviet team. It's one reason why the
approaches taken by the men's and women's teams have differed so much in
international play. For the men, professional basketball is their focus;
for the women, the international events have always been the ones that
gave them the most exposure until the WNBA came along.
As an example, the current women's team currently has the two best
players in the world playing for it: Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes.
Furthermore, they've been teammates on the international team since '96,
when the US got serious about international competition and staged a long
barnstorming tour for the team. On the men's side, this would be like
forming a team around Shaq & Kobe and sending them out, year after year.
Some late injuries did hurt the depth of the squad a bit, however; top
talents like PF Yolanda Griffith (the most dominant post player in the
world), F Chamique Holdsclaw (who has finally put it all together in the
WNBA) and F Tina Thompson (great inside/out player) were unavailable. The
US still had cagey veterans like Dawn Staley (the greatest player in ACC
history) and Katie Smith and wisely added young superstars like Tamika
Catchings and Sue Bird. The latter two players will be Olympic mainstays
for years to come. Catchings in particular was huge against Russia,
hitting several big threes.
More than anything, Chancellor assembled a team where everyone knew
their roles and stuck to them. The team's signature was its relentless
defense. Their opponents shot just 35% from the field, including 25% from
three while the US forced 20 turnovers a game. The US took care of the
ball, made their free throws, controlled the boards and shut down
high-scoring opponents. While the medal round was probably closer than it
should have been, they faced the pressure of being the clear favorite like
the veterans they were. When Russia erased a 13-point deficit to pull
within 1 with just a few minutes left, Lisa Leslie reentered the game
despite 4 fouls. The US held the Russians to just 3 points the rest of
the way, getting all the stops when they needed them.
Team defense, valuing the ball and understanding roles comes only with
time--something that the US men lacked. The women's players understood
this and in particular understood players not wanting to deal with a
rigorous off-season tournament so soon after the NBA playoffs. While the
international game for the US men is in flux because of all of the various
problems surrounding the formation of a team, the women's team looks set
for a long time. Expect to see Leslie and Swoopes on the '04 Olympic team
for their swan song, along with a new generation of young superstars.
Perhaps one of them will be a certain native Louisianan who wears #20 for