London Olympics 2012: U.S. women’s basketball team faces outsize expectations

Correction: A photo caption with this article incorrectly described the photograph as having been taken at the Verizon Center. It was taken at the D.C. Armory. This version has been updated.


Team USA Coach Geno Auriemma applauds with Seimone Augustus, left, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen during practice at the D.C. Armory. (Alex Brandon/AP)
July 14, 2012

Two years ago, after the U.S. women’s basketball team throttled host Czech Republic in the title game of the FIBA world championships in Karlovy Vary, 6,000 Czech fans, including President Vaclav Klaus, celebrated at KV Arena.

Despite the 89-69 result, Geno Auriemma, the U.S. national team coach, recalled the Czech team was so pleased to have been within striking distance at halftime that the final outcome was all but an afterthought. At least the Czechs hadn’t met with a fate similar to, say, South Korea, which fell to the United States by 62 points, or Spain, a 106-70 loser.

Such is the reverence with which the rest of the world views the Americans’ supremacy in the sport, and it’s no wonder with an Olympic roster that includes six gold medalists from the 2008 Games; the reigning WNBA most valuable player, Tamika Catchings; the reigning WNBA rookie of the year, Maya Moore; and enough NCAA titles to overload even the most spacious trophy cases.

“It’s like U-Conn. on steroids,” said Auriemma, the coach of the seven-time NCAA champion Huskies who since 2000 have set the standard in women’s college basketball. “That’s what this job is.”

The expectations for Team USA in the London Olympics are such that winning by fewer than double digits just won’t do. The United States underscored that reality during the 2008 Beijing Games by winning by an average of 39 points in going 8-0 and dispatching Australia, 92-65, for the program’s fourth straight gold medal, an unprecedented achievement in traditional female team sports.

This year’s group beat China, 100-62, on May 12 in its first exhibition game despite 21 turnovers and but one practice beforehand. Catchings scored a team-high 19 points and was among six players to reach double figures. Moore added 15 points, and center Sylvia Fowles had 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting and seven rebounds to match a team high.

It’s no coincidence that with Auriemma in charge, Moore is one of six former Connecticut players on Team USA. The others are Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tina Charles, giving the locker room a decidedly Huskies ambience.

“I’ve already been used to the U-Conn. vibe,” said first-time Olympian Angel McCoughtry, a Baltimore native who helped Louisville reach the NCAA final in 2009. “I played in the Big East for four freakin’ years.”

Since Auriemma took over in 1985-86, Connecticut is one national championship from matching Tennessee for most all-time and won a Division I-record 90 consecutive games from the start of 2008-09 through Dec. 30, 2010, during which time the Huskies won consecutive NCAA titles.

Since 2000, Tennessee and Baylor are the only schools other than Connecticut to have won multiple national championships.

“I mean, I have to wear my orange a couple times,” said 2008 Olympian Candace Parker, a proud Tennessee alum who won national championships in 2007 and ’08. “I remind Coach Auriemma that he didn’t win when [I was] there, so he can’t really talk all that stuff.”

College allegiances aside, Team USA’s assignment over the next two weeks is simply to become more familiar with one another. Team members just completed the first portion of their WNBA seasons and are on Olympic break, so the transition from opponents to teammates is only beginning.

The United States has two days of practice this weekend before playing its second exhibition game on Monday night against Brazil. That game will be the first of a doubleheader with the men’s team at Verizon Center.

Team USA then travels to Manchester, England, for three days, playing Britain on July 18, before heading to Istanbul for two final exhibition games and two more days of practice.

The Americans will face Croatia in the first game of Olympic competition on July 28 at the Olympic Park arena.

“If I say, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter what happens Monday, we’re just trying to put our team together,’ and then Brazil beats our [behinds], and everybody goes, ‘Man, this Olympic team stinks,’ ” Auriemma said. “So you can’t say, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter what happens Monday.’ Monday, we’ve got to win so we get used to winning right away. But at the same time, we’ve got to find out some things about what kind of team are we going to have. What kind of personality is this team going to have? What’s our identity going to be?”

More on the London Olympics:

Profiles in speed: Speed is scrutinized, celebrated

Profiles in speed: Complete series

Timeline: Doping at the Olympics

Full coverage on Heavy Medal blog

Gene Wang is a sports reporter covering multiple beats, including Navy football, the Capitals, Wizards, Nationals, women’s basketball, auto racing, boxing and golf. He also covers Fantasy Football.
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Medals
Gold Silver Bronze Total
United States 8 19 17 44
China 10 11 7 41
Russia 2 11 3 35
See complete medals table
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