When you’re chasing history, nothing comes easy. But the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team (1-0) knew that coming into Tuesday’s opening contest at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Having already had to wait a year when the Games were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the veteran-led U.S. team wasn’t going to let an early deficit derail its pursuit of a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal.
Behind A’ja Wilson’s and Brittney Griner’s double-doubles and the formidable presence of Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, the U.S. topped Nigeria (0-1) 81-72 at Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo. It was the 50th consecutive Olympic victory for the U.S., a streak that began when the Americans won bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Not that the players were keeping track.
“We don’t really count them,” Taurasi said. “We have too much respect for all these countries, and we know the next one’s the most important one. I think it’s a great feat. It tells you all the great players and coaches that have come through USA Basketball and just the kind of culture we’ve built.”
Wilson, in her Olympic debut, had 19 points and 13 rebounds, while Griner finished with 13 point and 10 boards. Taurasi, who along with Bird is going after a record fifth gold medal, had 10 first-half points. Though Bird didn’t score, she did have 13 assists and four rebounds. Her 11th assist gave her 100 for her Olympic career.
“Oh, my gosh, I had to get the jitters out in the beginning, but it was a great feeling,” said Wilson, the reigning WNBA MVP with the Las Vegas Aces. “My teammates really helped me kind of calm my nerves and just play my game.”
Next up for the U.S. in Group B is host Japan (1-0), which upset France (0-1) 74-70. Tipoff is Friday at 12:40 a.m. EDT.
Taurasi was back in action for the first time since July 3. A hip muscle strain that kept her out of all three exhibition games in Las Vegas came after she missed more than a month with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury due to a fractured sternum.
“I felt pretty good,” said Taurasi, who was 3-of-6 shooting and had two rebounds in 23 minutes. “If I just keep getting a little stronger, a little bit better and whatever I can do to help, that’s what I’m here for.”
The U.S. came out sluggish, missing its first four shots and turning the ball over four times. The Americans were down 8-1 before Taurasi hit the first USA basket with 6:14 left in the first quarter. That started an 11-0 run, capped by a Jewell Loyd 3-pointer with 4:18 remaining, for a 12-8 lead.
Nigeria — which is ranked 17th in the world and lost to the U.S. 93-62 in a Las Vegas pre-Olympic exhibition — regained the lead at the end of the first quarter on Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah’s 3-pointer.
Neither team shot well in the first quarter, with Nigeria at 23.8% (5-of-24) and the USA at 33.3% (5-of-15). Nigeria went 8-of-10 from the free-throw line, however, while the U.S. committed eight first-quarter turnovers.
“I felt we had to adjust to the style of play that Nigeria was playing,” said U.S. head coach Dawn Staley. “They crowded our space for 94 feet. It took us probably a quarter and a half to really adjust to it. Once we did, we found ourselves just opening up the game.
“But those turnovers lingered throughout the entire game. And sometimes you have to win playing a different style of play, and we certainly had to do that tonight.”
Nigeria then went up 25-20 after Promise Amukamara’s hoop with 8:07 left in the half. That’s when the USA took off on its 23-0 burst and eventual 44-32 advantage at halftime. The Americans got out into transition in the second quarter, which helped them convert 68.8% (11-of-16) of their shots.
The Americans opened the second half on a 14-4 run to create a cushion. Nigeria stayed aggressive and went on a 12-0 run to pull within 75-67 with 3:20 left, but the U.S. rattled off the next six points to end the comeback threat.
“We know that basketball is a game of runs, so at the end of the day, we just had to be consistent in what we were doing and get us back, keep doing what got us the lead,” Wilson said. “Sometimes you kind of mentally fatigue, but then we snapped back, and we got back in it.”
By playing in her 33rd Olympic game Tuesday, Taurasi took sole possession of the Taurasi took sole possession of the overall women’s Olympic basketball record.
“It’s just lucky, you know?” Taurasi said of her longevity. “You put all those years in all those camps and you never think that you’ll be able to play so many. For one, I’m lucky enough. It’s just being around a really good group of people, from USA Basketball management to players and coaches, just really lucky, really fortunate.”
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