The U.S. women’s basketball team will face off against Spain in the gold medal match on Saturday in Rio.
To say they are expected to win is an understatement. In the round-robin group stage of the tournament, they beat Spain 103–63. That was just an average game for this squad.
The USWNBT is on a 48-game winning streak in the Olympics, a streak that includes the last five gold medals.
The last time the team lost in the Olympics was August 5, 1992, when they fell to Russia (then the Commonwealth of Independent States), 79–73 in the semifinals of the Barcelona games.
George H.W. Bush was the president of the United States. Death Becomes Her, starring Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, and Isabella Rossellini, was the top movie at the box office. “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot was the top song on the Billboard Top 100. So yeah, it’s been a while.
That was also the year that the U.S. men’s basketball team fielded the Dream Team at the Olympics, the group of NBA players that bulldozed through all of its opponents by an average of 44 points. They were so famous, so talented, that their opponents would pose for pictures with them after each game.
Well, there’s certainly a hint of that in this year’s USWNBT. It’s not just the winning that’s impressive — it’s how they’re winning. They are completely, consistently dominating the competition. They beat their opponents in the group stage of this year’s Olympic competition by 40 points. They won their quarterfinal against Japan by 46, and their semifinal against France by 19.
Mostly, they win because they have to. They know that when you’re a U.S. basketball team, when you have Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, Tina Charles, Sue Bird, Seimone Augustus, Tamika Catchings, Elena Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles, Lindsay Whalen, and Angel McCoughtry on the same team, winning is not optional.
“If this doesn’t end well this weekend it’s four more years you have to wait to get back here,” head coach Geno Auriemma told reporters this week. “That’s unacceptable. There’s not enough wine on that boat.”
The team sustains their success because they don’t take anything for granted. They do a marvelous job scouting each team, and working together to overcome any adversity and somehow managing not to get overwhelmed by the pressure of being considered a “sure thing.”
“If this doesn’t end well this weekend it’s four more years you have to wait to get back here. That’s unacceptable. There’s not enough wine on that boat.”
In the quarterfinals, the Japanese team was within two points with just 1:30 left in the first half.
“There were a couple timeouts and a couple huddles where we were like, ‘We got to pick this up. This team is playing really well,’” Taurasi said. “They’re making us uncomfortable. That says a lot about this group. We’re older. We have a lot of experience. We didn’t panic and we just found a way to keep grinding it out, and it worked out for us.”
It would be easy for this team to be worn down by the endless grind of the women’s basketball season — they play overseas in the fall and winter, then come to the WNBA season for the spring and summer. (This year, the WNBA took a one-month hiatus to accommodate the Olympic schedule.) But they stick together and feed off of one another’s energy.
“I think it’s just a matter of us wearing teams down,” Moore said. “We play at a high level. We try to play at a high level for 40 minutes. It’s not going to happen perfectly.”
— FIBA (@FIBA) August 14, 2016
Like most women’s sports teams, the U.S. women’s basketball team is more underappreciated and under-the-radar than their male counterparts. But that doesn’t mean they’re not idolized around the world. In fact, just like the original Dream Team, the teams they’ve defeated at these games have often posed for pictures with the U.S. squad after the games. Those who are paying attention in Rio know that even with the golden history of U.S. basketball, this team is something extra special.
Auriemma, as usual, has no time for people who don’t appreciate this greatness.
“We live in [an] era where it’s okay to be sexist and degrade people that are good, just because they’re the opposite sex… We are what we are. We’re never going to apologize for being that good. We’re never going to apologize for setting a standard that other people aspire to achieve,” Auriemma said.
“We got a guy in the pool with a USA swim cap on who nobody can beat, and if he wasn’t in swimming, there would be a lot of other guys with gold medals. So it is what it is. The world needs times when such great, great teams or great individuals are doing great things, that other people can talk about and other people say, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great to be at that level?’ These are Olympians. They’re supposed to play at a high level.”