SAITAMA, Japan — The dynasty continues.
The U.S. women’s basketball team won its seventh straight Olympic gold medal, defeating Japan, 90-75, as the Games wrapped up on Sunday. It was the fifth gold for stalwart guards Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, the first players in Olympics basketball history with five.
«I couldn’t be more happy,» said Bird. «This is always really difficult, to win a gold medal, and this year was even harder given all the challenges everyone would face: no fans, no friends and family, and really isolating in a lot of ways.
«I’m happy. I’m so happy for everyone on our team and everyone involved.»
Though Taurasi jokingly said, «see you in Paris,» on the court immediately after the win, Bird affirmed that she will not play in a sixth Olympics and Taurasi seemed to strongly indicate that she will not either. Teammates and friends since Taurasi joined the UConn program in 2000, Bird’s junior year, a handful of gold will be enough.
But there was one surprise: head coach Dawn Staley said she will not coach the women’s team for 2024.
Japan was making its first appearance in the gold medal game, and given these Games had a pretty sizable support squad, dozens of Japanese volunteers were in the stands behind one of the baskets.
Their countrywomen gave a valiant effort — Japan’s on-court speed is impressive and crafty point guard Rui Machida is so fun to watch — but they just couldn’t stop the U.S. post duo of Britney Griner and A’ja Wilson.
At 6-foot-9 Griner is a full eight inches taller than Japan’s tallest player, and it allowed her to go to work inside offensively and control the paint defensively. Her 30 points (on 14-of-18 shooting) are a new women’s gold medal game record, surpassing the 29 points Lisa Leslie had in 1996 against Brazil.
Griner also had five rebounds and three blocks. For the tournament she shot 73.7 percent from the field and averaged over 16 points per game.
«I think what she showed in this tournament shows you what level she can go and how she can dominate a game,» Taurasi said of Griner, whom she has played with on the Phoenix Mercury since 2013. «I always tell her, ‘I don’t think you know how good you are,’ but that’s also the best thing about her — she’s the ultimate teammate.»
Wilson, the 2020 WNBA MVP who wins her first Olympic gold on her 25th birthday, had 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
To try to stay out of the post where they were clearly going to struggle, Japan turned to the three-pointer. They shot 31 as a team, but only eight were made. The long rebounds off some of those misses became easy transition buckets for USA.
Team USA outscored Japan 58-40 on points in the paint.
«We missed a couple easy ones in the paint in the beginning, and then we just couldn’t stop their inside game at all,» Japan head coach Tom Hovasse said. «We tried several different defenses, second half we got a lot more aggressive trying to create turnovers, trying to speed them up a bit. But when we needed a three we just didn’t knock it down, but that’s basketball.
«I loved how we fought until the very end.»
Up nine after one quarter and 11 points at halftime, the Americans really took control in the third quarter, going up by as many as 24 points after a Breanna Stewart three-pointer.
The U.S. also played Japan in the pool round, and came away with a great deal of respect for the way they play.
«Japan is in a good spot for basketball. I mean, this team can play,» Taurasi said. «We watched every single game [and] you can’t help but cheer for this team. They play hard, they play together, they play a style of basketball that makes you want to watch, and the future’s really bright for Japanese basketball.»
Bird joked that she’s really retiring because of Machida and Nako Motohashi, Japan’s other point guard.
There is one other member of the team who played her last gold-medal game: center Sylvia Fowles. Sunday marked her fourth gold medal, and she was seen crying on the medal stand.
«I teared up on the court because this is my last one. Just to see it come full circle from a youngster to a veteran,» she said. «Just trying to soak up the moment even though we don’t have family here, but showing everyone that it still hits the same, and that I enjoyed it and I’m very grateful for he experience.»
Dawn Staley has now won Olympic gold as a player, assistant coach and head coach, six in all; she is also the first Black coach to lead the women’s national team.
Several members of the U.S. men’s team, who won gold on Saturday, were in the stands, as was Megan Rapinoe — the U.S. soccer bronze medalist and Bird are engaged. With so few athletes able to have family and significant others in Tokyo due to COVID-19, Bird and Rapinoe were the rare couple who got to celebrate together, embracing for a few moments after the final buzzer.
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