TOKYO – As the U.S. women’s basketball team heads into the knockout rounds of the Olympics, at least they won’t be accused of having no competition this time.
If anything, the three games of group play have been surprisingly difficult for Team USA, including Monday’s 93-82 win over France. In each of the three, the U.S. has been pushed deep into the fourth quarter before finding another gear late to put the game away.
But coach Dawn Staley has a message for anyone trying to sound alarms about how difficult it’s been so far for the U.S. to win these three games after such a long stretch of utter dominance: You might want to get used to it.
“The countries here at the Olympic Games, they pour into their women’s teams and now you’re seeing the effects of it and that is great women’s basketball play,” she said. “Does everyone want us to come out and blow everybody out? Some people do and feel like that is supposed to happen. For us, we’ve known we’re in a dogfight every time we step on the floor. If you just do a little research, you’ll know this is how it’s supposed to be. It’s uncomfortable for us, it’s uncomfortable for the people that are watching because we’re not blowing teams out, but it’s great for those who turn the television on and watch.”
Staley has a point. At the last several Olympics – and particularly five years ago in Rio when the Americans’ closest margin was 19 points – there was little competitive value in tuning into the U.S. women’s basketball team. It was like Alabama football against the Citadel, only instead of once a year you saw it eight times in two weeks.
That has not been the case so far in Tokyo and likely will not be in the quarterfinals, as other teams have proven more than capable of pushing the U.S. and forcing a response.
It almost got a little too interesting on Monday when France, which had been hanging around during the second and third quarters, finally took a 72-71 lead early in the fourth. But what happened in the next few possessions showed yet again that there’s a difference between challenging Team USA and beating them.
Off a scramble play where it looked like the Americans had committed a turnover, the ball found Tina Charles at the top of the key, and she drilled a wide open 3-pointer. Then A’ja Wilson, who has been the Americans’ best player so far in this tournament, hit a pair of mid-range jumpers that created a six-point cushion.
Charles, who was not a 3-point shooter at all early in her career but has worked to add that to her weaponry, hit another three with 5:04 left for a 10-point lead and then capped off a superb 15-point performance with a runner that expanded the lead to 89-80 with 1:41 remaining.
“I pride myself on getting better every year, and we have great players in our league so in order to separate myself and keep the same company I’m in I have to keep working on my game and extending my range is a top priority,” Charles said. “I’m thankful Dawn allows us to be ourselves while I’m on this team and I’m glad it went in because we definitely needed to separate ourselves from France.”
That pattern of struggling to put opponents away until the final few minutes repeated itself in all three games of group play. But so has the ability for the Americans to get the ball inside in crunch time, where the advantage they have with Wilson and Brittney Griner has been huge.
When Team USA got the ball near the rim, there was little France could do as Wilson finished with 22 points (9-of-12 field goals) and seven rebounds. As a team, the U.S. shot 62% from inside the 3-point line.
“We know that’s the strength of our team and we try to feed them and they delivered,” Staley said.
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The U.S. will have to wait until the final group play game concludes Monday to know who it will play in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. But after getting challenged by Nigeria, Japan and France – all of which play different styles – they believe they’ll be well prepared for anything.
“Each team is like a new puzzle so we’re constantly gaining information,” point guard Sue Bird said. “These teams have all caused us to adjust and adapt, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”