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The U.S. Women’s National Team came together on Saturday evening at American University in Washington, D.C. to open their pre-Olympic training camp. The team will meet again on Sunday afternoon for a second practice before facing the Brazilian National Team in an exhibition game on Monday at 5:30 PM ET, which can be seen on ESPN2.
Saturday’s practice was the first time the team had met since a three-day training camp in Seattle back in early May, which was the first time that this full 12-member Olympic team had taken the floor together.
With such high expectations for a fifth straight Olympic gold medal, this team has very limited time to jell as a team before Olympic play begins on July 28, when the Americans face Croatia.
“With each day that we practice we are one day closer, so there’s a sense of urgency that we better get it right,” said head coach Geno Auriemma.
Following a brief team meeting, the team took the court for a solid two-hour practice that began with stretching and a warm up and quickly transitions into fast-break drills, as three-woman teams sprinted up and down the floor for easy buckets in a display of great team speed.
Then came time to teach, as Auriemma guided the team through a number of offensive sets – filled with down screens, cross screens, curls to the basket and backdoor cuts. The players need little time to pick things up and things were running smoothly.
“We did a lot of good things today,” said Diana Taurasi. “Sometimes you take for granted the three days of training in Seattle, but I think those three days really helped us come today and just step right into the stuff we are working on.”
Now it was time to do all of this against some defense, as the coaching staff call upon a group of male players to scrimmage with the women’s team. The first five players to take the floor for the U.S. were Sue Bird at the point, Taurasi at the shooting guard, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker at the forwards and Sylvia Fowles at center.
Both teams rotated in players throughout the scrimmage, with the exception of Asjha Jones for the U.S. women, who sat out of the practice to get an extra day of rest for a nagging injury. She expects to suit up and participate in full on Sunday.
The men put up a good fight, hurt the women’s team on the boards at times, but overall it was the women’s team that led from start to finish. Auriemma would occasionally stop play to provide instruction, but overall seemed pleased with the execution and effort of his players.
“It felt pretty good,” Auriemma said. “We’re lucky in that in the World Championship 10 of the players played in that, so all we’re doing is reviewing some of the stuff that we did and throwing in some new things. But for the most part they get it, they understand it. There are some things we’re going to have to do a little bit better, obviously.
“But given the fact that they all played all week; they’ve all been traveling; they have every right to be tired and to not be focused; and it was just the opposite. I was really proud of them.”
“It was intense,” said Swin Cash. “As soon as we stepped on the floor, it was like oh we're coming off playing, but once the ball is thrown up, everybody's getting after each other.”
Following the full court run against the male practice players, Auriemma shortened things to the half court and had his team play only defense. The team implemented strategies for switching on screens and when and when not to trap the ballhandler.
“Angel, Maya, Swin, Tamika, when you guys are in the game, there should be so much pressure on the ball that they can't initiate their offense,” Auriemma said to his top perimeter defenders.
He also had a few words of caution, followed by players committing cheap fouls. “If you're the kind of guy that fouls, you're not going to play many minutes,” he said, followed by confirming with the referee on site that opposing teams are awarded two shots after the fifth foul in international play. “Good players don't foul, that's why they're in the game. You have to be able to pressure defend but not foul.”
Once the defensive drills were complete, the players ran through a few shooting drills before wrapping up practice with some half-court passing drills leading to layups – or dunks, as Parker and Fowles both threw one down -- for the final player that touches the ball.
Finally, as practice broke a few players continued to shoot around, others went straight for the ice packs that had already been prepared and finally the players met with the media prior to heading for the bus back to the hotel.
They’ll be back in the same gym in just 15 hours for another practice session and another day closer to London.