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U.S. Uses Inside Strength
to Dominate The Game

In previewing "WNBA vs. USA Basketball: The Game at Radio City", storm.wnba.com reached the conclusion that, while the 2004 USA Basketball Women's Senior National Team was the prohibitive favorite, "A blowout seems unlikely, and the level of disparity is probably similar to that of the WNBA's previous All-Star Games. While the Western Conference has had a clear advantage in talent and has won all five true All-Star Games, the East has been able to keep things close. The last three games have all been decided by eight points or less."

Whoops.


ESPN named Yolanda Griffith its Player of The Game on the strength of her 11 points and 15 rebounds.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty
A Taj McWilliams-Franklin three-point play made the score 9-8 with 15:28 left in the first half. From there, it was all the U.S. women's team, which reeled off the next nine points and a 26-6 run that lasted more than 12 minutes to take a commanding 19-point lead to halftime. No, that's not a typo - some of the WNBA's finest players, including five of the league's 15 leading scorers, scored six points in a stretch of 12 minutes and 14 seconds.

A traditional All-Star game, clearly, "The Game" was not. As U.S. Coach Van Chancellor informed the national ESPN audience in a mid-game interview, he was using last night's game as a chance to sort out his rotation for the Olympics by playing everyone on his bench (it didn't hurt that two possible starters, Katie Smith (knee) and Sheryl Swoopes (foot) were sidelined). With just over a week until the opener in Athens, there was clearly a sense of urgency for the U.S. women until the game was clearly in hand.

Besides some late lapses that allowed the WNBA All-Stars to make the final score a somewhat respectable 74-58, it was the U.S. squad's reserves that really shined, attempting to convince Chancellor they deserve to be a part of his shortened roster when the games count. The young group of the Storm's Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash and Ruth Riley (with veteran mentor Yolanda Griffith) was not as statistically impressive as the starters, but it was the reserves that were on the court when the U.S. made its run, and the energy seemed to pick up when they were in the game.

Playing her traditional All-Star/international pass-first style, Bird scored just two points in her 20 minutes of action. Despite recording just three assists, she dazzled with her passing ability, including one memorable all-UConn fast break where Taurasi grabbed the rebound, made the outlet pass to Bird in stride, and Bird found Cash behind the defense and perfectly dropped the ball in to Cash like a quarterback throwing deep, Cash finishing the play with a layup.

The pregame line of thinking had it that the WNBA Stars could stay close by pushing the tempo and taking advantage of their superiority on the perimeter. Neither worked. While the WNBA outscored the U.S. squad 8-6 in terms of fast-break points, those points primarily came when the U.S. turned the ball over in backcourt. Why couldn't the WNBA run? Any coach will tell you that a successful fast break starts with the defensive rebound, and those were few and far between for the WNBA All-Stars.

Taking full advantage of its huge superiority in terms of height, the U.S. women's team dominated the glass, pulling down 62 rebounds to the WNBA's 30. Amazingly, the U.S. pulled down more offensive rebounds than the WNBA had defensive rebounds, 25 to 20. While Natalie Williams had six rebounds off the bench to lead the WNBA Stars, three members of the U.S. squad had double-figures boards, led by Griffith's 15. Those came in just 18 minutes of action; assuming there were a proportional number of misses when Griffith was in the game to win she was out, she pulled down a remarkable 36.2% of all rebounds by either side when she was in the game.

Of course, part of the reason the U.S. women's team was able to pull down so many rebounds was because the WNBA All-Stars were missing so many shots. So much for the notion that the WNBA could outshoot the Smith-less U.S. squad. Combined, the WNBA Stars' top four guards - Nikki Teasley, Anna DeForge, Becky Hammon and Deanna Nolan, all in the league's top 14 in three-pointers this season - shot a ghastly 3-for-25 from the field, 0-for-14 from downtown. They added three assists and six turnovers.

During his interview with ESPN's broadcast team of Mark Jones, Ann Meyers and Doris Burke, Chancellor noted that he was surprised to see his team's defense so far ahead of its offense at this stage in the preparations for Athens. In part, however, that could be because of The Game's format. The obvious issue was Radio City Music Hall's unorthodox shooting backgrounds, with the vast majority of the players playing in Radio City for the first time. Unmentioned by the broadcast crew were rims that appeared extremely tight on television; multiple times, balls rattled around and either in or out in a manner that doesn't occur with rims that have been broken in. (NBA players like to speed up this process by dunking repeatedly, something that might not happen in the WNBA on a regular basis until Candace Parker enters the league.)

In the two games played at Radio City so far, the New York Liberty and its opponents, the Detroit Shock and Connecticut Sun, have shot 39.8% from the field, down from 41.0% in the average Liberty game on the road or at Madison Square Garden, so maybe there's something to this theory. Additionally, the teams had only a practice or two to adjust to the larger international ball. Typically, players coming to training camp from playing overseas say it takes about a week to adjust.

On the U.S. side, the primary negative was turnovers. The U.S. squad coughed the ball up 28 times, and starters Dawn Staley, Tina Thompson and Lisa Leslie had five giveaways apiece. More practice together should help take care of the issue, and beyond that and some inconsistent outside shooting that might be because of the setting, the U.S. women looked ready to take on all comers in Athens.

Ultimately, last night was about two things - two good hours of entertainment and preparing the U.S. team for the Olympics. While the matchup might not have been as close as one would hope, in those regards it was a success.