TOKYO – Four years ago, fresh off winning her first NCAA championship, Dawn Staley brought her South Carolina team here for a summer exhibition tour that included three games against the Japanese national team.
It wasn’t pretty. The ball movement, the spacing, the ability to play small and frustrate with pace – it was all too much, even for one of the best teams in college basketball, albeit one that wasn’t exactly in midseason form.
“We were trying, and we still lost by 25,” Staley said.
As eye-opening as that experience might have been, it was instructive in a very specific way as it related to the challenge Staley has now as head coach of the U.S. women’s basketball team at the Tokyo Games. In any international event, the Americans still have the most talent, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. But what’s happening in the women’s game has started to track with what’s already happened in the men’s game, where styles and continuity can help other countries shrink the personnel gap.
For now, that only goes so far. Team USA ultimately beat Japan on Friday in group play here at Saitama Super Arena, only making it comfortable in the last three minutes of an 86-69 victory. When paired with the Americans’ nine-point win over Nigeria in their Olympic opener earlier in the week, it paints the picture of a world changing and a gold medal that will be far more difficult to secure than at any time in recent memory.
“It’s just good basketball going on right now in the world, and I think we’re going to be fine,” said Brittney Griner. “Everybody’s kind of looking at it like, ‘Oh my God,’ but it’s not an ‘Oh my God moment.’ We’re doing what we need to do right now.”
There will, undeniably, be some concerns about the manner in which Team USA has won its first two games here, with group play concluding Monday against France. The Americans have turned it over a combined 42 times in two games, many of them coming against a full-court press. On both occasions, they’ve held 10-point leads in the fourth quarter and been unable to go on that big run to put it away. Their perimeter defense has been average at best, and they’ve struggled with the pace at which their opponents have tried to play.
There’s a blueprint now for how to at least bother a team that five years ago in Rio won its games by an average margin of 37 points.
“I don’t think America likes to go that fast for that long,” said Japan coach Tom Hovasse, who grew up in Colorado and played at Penn State in the 1980s.
But what ultimately separates the U.S. from everyone else, and why the Americans didn’t let Japan come back Friday: They have Griner and A’ja Wilson and the other teams don’t.
For as long as the U.S. has sent teams to international competition, the ability to play with bigs who are skilled at scoring in the low- and mid-post has been the primary separator from the rest of the field. In past years, it made the…
Read More: A’ja Wilson, Brittney Griner key for Team USA women at Tokyo Olympics 2021-07-30 09:33:45