USA Basketball Working Towards Beijing

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Storm Q&A: Anne Donovan
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Kevin Pelton, | November 8, 2007
Nine months to the day from the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, Head Coach Anne Donovan and the U.S. Senior Women's National Team are gearing up to defend their three consecutive gold medals. For the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the U.S. enters looking to avenge a defeat, having fallen to Russia in the semifinals of last fall's FIBA World Championships.

The journey to Beijing has started this fall in Chile, in Russia, and at various colleges as the U.S. Women have gone through their most extensive fall schedule since the lead-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

"Obviously I feel great that we have qualified, but right up there with that for everybody that was a part of that trip was how the team played."
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty
The USA's appearance in the FIBA Americas Championships was not by choice. The team would much rather have secured a berth in the Olympics by winning the World Championships, but the trip to Chile offered an opportunity for learning and improvement. After a scare from Cuba in the opening game of the tournament, the U.S. saw its defense come together against lesser opponents. The championship game provided a rematch against Cuba, and the U.S. responded with a 30-point victory.

"Obviously I feel great that we have qualified, that we have punched our ticket to Beijing," Donovan said during her brief stopover in Seattle between National Team trips. "That was the goal and that was the number one reason to be there, but right up there with that for me and for everybody that was a part of that trip was how the team played.

"I thank the lord that we had Cuba first, because right away anybody who didn't know how difficult it was going to be got to see how difficult it was going to be. It forced players and coaches to really zero in on getting better - knowing that once we got past Cuba we weren't going to have the same kind of game against Jamaica, but recognizing that we were going to see Brazil or Cuba again and we'd better be ready."

Many of the same players re-gathered in Russia for the FIBA World League Tournament, which pitted the U.S. Women against some of the world's top club teams - all with the benefit of extensive practice in preparation for their upcoming seasons. The U.S. went 3-2, falling to CSKA Moscow in the finals after defeating the star-studded squad - which features WNBA stats Becky Hammon and Nicole Powell and international veterans Maria Stepanova and Ann Wauters - in pool play.

Over the past week and a half, the U.S. Women have been traveling the country to face many of the nation's top NCAA teams as part of their college tour. Already, the U.S. has faced three of the four top-ranked teams in the nation, going 5-0 and winning by an average of 20.4 points per game.

A highlight of the college tour has been the return of veteran center Lisa Leslie, back in game action for the first time since delivering daughter Lauren in June. Despite shaking off some rust, Leslie has a pair of double-doubles and has averaged 13.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game during the tour. She has also provided some valuable veteran leadership to a squad that is still in transition from the Leslie-Dawn Staley-Sheryl Swoopes core that has led the U.S. to three straight gold medals to a new generation of stars.

"She is the last of the old regime right now," said Donovan. "We lost Dawn [now an assistant to Donovan]. We lost Sheryl Swoopes to injury and Lisa has not been a part. We really missed that last year in Sao Paulo."

A new core is beginning to emerge, however, including the starting backcourt of Storm guard Sue Bird and her close friend Diana Taurasi. Bird and Taurasi have played for the U.S. throughout the fall, as has Seimone Augustus, and that commitment is helping their development in the international game - and, Donovan hopes, will help Bird in the WNBA as well.

"As our premier point guard, Sue's commitment has been huge - in particular this fall," Donovan said. "To go to Russia, to come on the college tour - after a very challenging WNBA season, it speaks volumes - not just for USA Basketball but Sue's continuing growth and confidence."

Leslie's absence in Chile and Russia, as well as the torn Achilles that has sidelined cornerstone forward Tamika Catchings, has forced other players to step up. Younger players have also gotten useful international experience this fall because not all of the National Team mainstays have been able to participate in every tournament or tour.

"It's given Seimone Augustus an opportunity to step in and see what she can do and she has shone brightly, really just flourished," said Donovan. "Same with Cappie (Pondexter). This gives Cappie, who had never played with the Senior Team, an opportunity to go to Chile and now go to Russia and continue to make her case to make the Olympic team. It is very valuable. I wish we had the same opportunity with our post players. We got Rebekkah Brunson into the mix, but there are so many other post players that we've been dying to get in the mix and just haven't been able to get in."

"As our premier point guard, Sue's commitment has been huge."
courtesy USA Basketball
The chance to look at several players will also become important as decisions have to be made about the U.S. roster for the Olympics. The USA Basketball Web site lists 29 players on the 2007-08 Senior National Team roster, most of whom have taken part in at least one of the tournaments this fall. That group will have to be pared down by the time the U.S. Women reconvene in the spring and begin their final preparation for Beijing.

"March and April, my goal would be to have our Olympic team together and not keep trying young talent - at that point, to really have it narrowed down," explained Donovan. "I don't know if that will happen and those decisions are really the committee's and not mine, but I would much prefer to be working with a much smaller group come spring."

There will be more work to be done in the spring if the U.S. is to win gold. The rest of the world is as strong as it has ever been. The growing depth of competitive teams was underscored by Cuba's surprise run in the FIBA Americas Championship, which included hanging close with the U.S. and beating Brazil in the semifinals.

The U.S. Women may not be able to count on something that has helped them since the 1996 Olympics. The loss to Russia, as well as the pair of losses during the World League Tournament, may reduce the psychological advantage the U.S. once carried into games by virtue of its 50-game unbeaten streak in World Championship and Olympic play.

"When I talk to (USA Basketball leadership) Val Ackerman, Carol Callan, Jim Tooley, my constant concern is other countries getting confident against us," said Donovan. "With every time we're close, or losing in Sao Paulo - and you can back a lot farther than that; we've been close in the last many big competitions, World Championships and Olympics - teams have been getting confident against us. Once you lose the mystique - which we kind of did last fall in Sao Paulo - you really run the risk of not having that five- or 10-point advantage you have going into a game."

Of course, as Donovan points out, the record winning streak made the U.S. Women appear less threatened than they really were. The top teams in the world, notably Australia and Russia, have not been intimidated by playing the U.S. Russia was as close as two points late in the fourth quarter of the semifinal matchup with the U.S. Women in Athens, and got within one in the finals of the 2002 World Championships. Still, the U.S. held strong to win gold both times, and that will be the goal again in Beijing.