As Team USA dynasties sputter, U.S. women’s basketball handles the pressure of perfection

·4-min read

SAITAMA, Japan — The last Team USA dynasty still standing unscathed here at the Olympics is, undoubtedly, the most dominant.

It isn’t men’s basketball, which fell to France in its opener and struggled in its quarterfinal.

It isn’t women’s soccer, which crashed and burned toward a bronze medal match.

It isn’t even women’s water polo, which last week lost its first Olympic match since 2008.

It is, rather, the American sporting institution that won its 53rd consecutive Olympic game here on Wednesday. The laughably deep U.S. women’s basketball team, with WNBA All-Stars in surplus, made light work of Australia in a quarterfinal. Breanna Stewart, the best player in the world, made 20 first-half points look easy. Twenty-four players from both teams saw the court in a 79-55 U.S. win, and the 12 best were the 12 Americans.

Breanna Stewart (10) and the American women are the one dynastic Team USA that hasn't been delivered a reality check at these Olympics. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Breanna Stewart (10) and the American women are the one dynastic Team USA that hasn't been delivered a reality check at these Olympics. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

All around them, throughout Tokyo, American gold medal favorites have been faltering. One of the themes of these games has been the imperfection of the seemingly perfect. Simone Biles, who seemed a lock for multiple golds, struggled mentally and reminded us that even GOATs are human. Katie Ledecky, who only won two golds and two silvers, spoke eloquently about how greatness can be “a real blessing and a curse,” because of the pressure and unmeetable expectations it naturally creates.

The U.S. women perhaps felt that pressure in basketball pool play here at the Saitama Super Arena. "Oh, you mean [the pressure] like when you only win by single digits and people have a fit?" Sue Bird said with a smile. They underperformed. After bludgeoning every Rio 2016 opponent by 19 points or (often) more, here in Japan, they beat Nigeria by just 9, and France by 11.

They no longer seemed untouchable, and head coach Dawn Staley felt the newfound competitiveness was a sign of things to come.

“The countries here at the Olympic Games, they pour into their women’s teams, and now you’re seeing the effects of it,” Staley said. It’s a trend similar to the one that U.S. women’s soccer has experienced. Investment in the sport globally has closed the gap between the U.S. and the world. “We’ve known we’re in a dogfight every time we step on the floor,” Staley said. “If you just do a little research, you’ll know this is how it’s supposed to be.”

But here on Wednesday, there was no dogfight. No closing gap. Stewart propelled the U.S. to an early 21-6 lead, and neither she nor her teammates ever looked back. They moved crisply, and moved the ball willingly, and played disruptive defense.

The night before they tipped off the knockout rounds, they'd spoken as a team about that pressure, and about what they have that somebody like Biles or Ledecky doesn't. "We like to remind each other of the comfort of having 12 of us," Sue Bird said. "Twelve of us that are extremely talented, 12 of us that know what we're doing.

"And every now and then, you do need that reminder to kind of settle you down, that the pressure's not on one person. It's not on me to go out there and score 30. It's not on [Diana Taurasi], it's not on [Sylvia Fowles], it's not on anyone to do that. So I feel like we try to find the comfort in the fact that there's 11 other people that I'm gonna be able to count on."

They and their predecessors have not lost an Olympic game in nearly three decades, not since a 1992 semifinal, and there is, players admit, pressure that comes with that. If they win two more games here, starting with Serbia on Friday, and claim a seventh straight gold medal, they will equal the team-sport record, set by U.S. men’s basketball from 1936-1968. History is within reach.

But many of them know pressure. Know history. Five of the 12 played at UConn. Bird and Taurasi have been there, done that, won titles, won golds, and, "You know," Taurasi said when asked about the pressure, "it's just a game."

"Sue and I were talking about it the other day," she continued. "For as much as we've dedicated our whole lives to it, it's just a game. We come out here, we compete, we try to play hard. Try to do the right things. All the things that you've done over the hours of playing a lot.

"You know," she reiterated with a smile, "it's just a game."

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