Whalen Shines in an Uneven U.S. Performance vs. Brazil
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WASHINGTON -- Monday night’s exhibition win over Brazil showcased both the U.S. Women’s National Team’s greatest strength and greatest weakness in the span of two hours.
The biggest asset that head coach Geno Auriemma has at his disposal is a depth of talent that simply cannot be matched by any team the U.S. will face over the next month.
With starting point guard Sue Bird not with the team -- she left following Sunday’s practice in order to return home due to a death in her family -- Lindsay Whalen was called upon to fill the starting role. And did she ever.
Whalen posted a team-high 21 points along with five assists and five rebounds to lead the Americans past the Brazilians, 99-67, and collected Player of the Game honors for her efforts.
“Lindsay did an awesome job,” said forward Tamika Catchings. “She knew that she needed to step up with Sue out. We always talk about when person goes down somebody has to step up. And as the only real point guard, Lindsay knew that she had to take control and she did that for us.”
“I wanted to make sure we came out, got good looks and shared the ball, moved the ball,” said Whalen of taking over the starting job. “Be aggressive when the time presented itself. I think it was a good start for us. “
Whalen, an eight-year pro out of Minnesota, is one of two veteran players, along with Asjha Jones, that are making their Olympic debut in London, which is rather rare in the USA Basketball program.
“You talk about people who are going to Olympics for the first time and you automatically think it’s a younger player,” said Bird on Saturday, before learning the news that would force her absence from the team.
“For us, with those two guys, that’s not the case. I think it’s great because they’re veterans, they’re experienced, they’ve won championships, they’ve been in big games, but they also still have that first Olympics hunger. It’s a great combination to have players like that on your team.”
Auriemma believes that first Olympics hunger and a desire to validate her status on this team helped drive Whalen’s performance against Brazil.
“Yeah, there is probably a lot to that,” he said. “I don't think early on in Lindsay's career she probably got enough respect or enough exposure to let people know just how good she really is.
“When she was on the World Championship team, I think some people were a little bit surprised, but she grows on you the more you're around here her. She plays great at the World Championships, came back, won a WNBA Championship, And she's gotten better and better every year. “
While her path to the Olympic stage has been longer than the majority of her teammates, she has proved that this is where she belongs.
“I wasn't sure whether or not she would have the respect of all of these great players because she's not Sue. She's not Diana. She's not Tamika. She doesn't have that kind of reputation,” said Auriemma. “But she's earned the respect of every one of these players and everyone on the coaching staff, for sure.”
“She’s one of my favorite players to watch in the league,” said Candace Parker. “The way she plays the game with her size at the point guard position, it really creates a lot of problems for the defense. And I think she did a good job on the defensive end herself, disrupting them and making plays for us.”
Some of the best plays that the U.S. squad made on Monday were sparked by their stifling full-court pressure defense. When they were able to force turnovers and push the ball in transition, they were at their best.
“That’s what coach has emphasized,” said Parker. “We should be thinking score when we’re on defense; that we shouldn’t have to set up and offense, it should just be fast breaks. And I think we’re capable of doing that.”
It’s all part of this team’s identity according to Swin Cash.
“That’s going to be our game,” she said. “We’re going to play you end line to end line for 40 minutes and stay aggressive.”
The U.S. forced 29 Brazil turnovers and converted them into 31 points. But it’s not as if they were squeaky clean when it came to controlling the ball themselves. The Americans committed 22 turnovers on the night, including 10 in the third quarter alone, as the team went through stretches of sloppy play throughout the game.
“We have to cut down on our turnovers, but that just comes with us building chemistry and playing together,” said Cash.
Catchings referred to the team’s uneven play as “growing pains” that they will need to work through, which brings us to the biggest weakness of this team – they simply have not had enough time to jell as a unit.
And to top it all off, they’re not fully healthy. Jones sat out of Monday’s game in order to rest an ankle injury suffered this past Wednesday during a WNBA game; McCoughtry didn’t enter the game until late in the third quarter due to a multitude of injuries that she is currently nursing; and Taurasi is still working herself back into a rhythm after having been sidelined for the past six weeks with a hip injury.
While there was little rust on her shot – she connected on 6-of-12 from the field, including 4-of-7 from three point range – Taurasi committed a team-high six turnovers as she shifted from shooting guard to point guard when Whalen went to the bench.
“I felt pretty good, you know,” said Taurasi after the game. “I haven't played in a while, so this is the first time being out there and playing the game. When you play with someone like Lindsay, it makes the game pretty easy. Just run and she'll find you open. I think I'm on the right path.”
With less than two weeks before the Olympics tip off, the team will hold three additional practices and three exhibition games in Manchester and Istanbul before heading to London, with an opening matchup with Croatia on July 28.
After a weekend in Washington to practice and get out on the court in an exhibition game, the U.S. squad knows there is still much work to be done in order for this team to reach its potential.
“We have moments where we look really good and people share the ball and we're in the right spots,” said Taurasi. “But you can tell we've only had two days of practice. But if you peak now, you really don't have anything to look forward to. So each session that we have in the gym, we have to take advantage of it and get better little by little.”
Both the Men’s and Women’s National Teams left Washington on Monday night to head to Manchester, England for the next stop in their preparation for the London Olympics.
Before they left to catch a plane to head across the pond, both teams had the opportunity to meet with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the Verizon Center on Monday night.
Obama met with the women’s team after their game against Brazil. He offered his congratulations on the win and wished them luck in London in their quest for the gold medal.
The team presented Obama with a jersey and an autographed basketball before gathering for a group photo and some brief conversations and individual photographs.
“With the President we talked a little health care, tax breaks,” Taurasi said with a laugh.
“It was cool; he’s a great guy” said Parker. “He knew everybody, said hi, said thank you for being role models for his daughters, and told us that Michelle Obama will be over there for the opening ceremonies.
"It was a great honor to meet the president again. I had met him previously, and he remembered my daughter’s name and told me to tell her hi. I don’t know at three how excited she’s going to be but when she’s older she’ll really be thankful for it.”
The entire weekend in Washington provided the teams with a number of opportunities to put representing your country in the proper perspective. There was the ‘Hoops for Troops’ clinic where members of the military took the flag patches off of their uniforms and presented them to the players to take with them to London; meeting the wounded warriors at the ‘Hoops for Troops’ event; meeting the president and vice president at Monday’s games; and especially making a trip to Arlington National Cemetery with General Martin Dempsey, the highest ranking military officer in all of the U.S. Armed Forces.
“Ooh, that experience was extremely humbling for me,” said Parker. “I think standing in the middle with all those headstones, I looked and I saw a guy that was born the same year as me and died this past year. So it really hits home and to have their support. I feel that what we do, we’re going over there, we’re doing the easy job. They just told us to bring back the gold medal and that’s our goal.”