Champions aren’t made without challenges. Although the U.S. Women’s National Team defeated Australia 104-89 in Madison Square Garden, it wasn’t easy. Australia shot 40.8 percent, Leilani Mitchell (18 points) and Elizabeth Cambage (22) led the Opals’ charge, aided by Penny Taylor and Erin Phillips combing for 4-10 shooting from deep.
Fortunately, for every run Australia responded with, the U.S. Women’s National Team bucked back with Diana Taurasi (20 points) and Elena Delle Donne (19) lighting up the scoreboard in flurries. Delle Donne instantly made her presence known, whether from the block, mid-range or deep, scoring 11 points in the first quarter alone, when the U.S. Women’s National Team led 28-25 on 58 percent shooting.
“Coach even said it, that each person is going to have a night where they’re hitting and we’re riding their back,” the 2015 WNBA MVP explained about the team’s offensive talent. “I think the greatest thing is our depth, and being able to wear teams out with that depth.”
So what does it mean being the hot hand on an Olympian-laden roster?
“It was fun to provide a little bit of a spark,” Delle Donne admitted. “That’s our job, coming off the bench and provide a spark, then we get tired and they come in to do the same. I think our greatest strength is our depth, and the fact anyone cans step up. We knew it was going to be a really gritty team. We were up by 15 in the first half, and they cut it to six. They’re a great team, will exploit certain weaknesses. It was great to get a game like that under our belt, because obviously in Rio, there will be games where we have to grit it out.”
With Australia missing all-time great Lauren Jackson, the U.S. Women’s National Team won the rebound battle 41-33, forcing seven steals due to intense defensive. When Australia struggled getting clean shots, Angel McCoughtry was often the reason, whether forcing miscues or finishing Maya Moore’s stylish saves.
When asked what she brings to the team, McCoughtry touted her defense.
“Just me, Seimone, Whalen, BG,” the 2012 gold medalist explained, listing her fellow reserves playing proud defense. “That’s how we wear teams down. They don’t have a bench like we have. We have scorers, so I don’t have to be a scorer like I am in Atlanta. I can just come in, play some defense and have some fun.”
As the turnovers and rebounds piled up, the U.S. Women’s National Team grew their lead, entering the fourth quarter with an 89-71, thanks to hot hands sharing the ball and keeping the New York crowd engaged throughout. Over their past two exhibition games, 66 percent of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s field-goals have come from assists, illustrating both an unselfish pedigree and widespread shooting touch. Maya Moore finished 4-13 from the field, but the team outscored Australia by 15 with her on the court, thanks to Moore’s aforementioned hustle, six rebounds and six assists.
“We know we can score at will, we’re the best in the world,” McCoughtry continued about prioritizing hustle.
“Getting the defensive deflections, that’s what coach wants. He wants to see the defense. We get the stops, we have the all-around game. We’ve only been together for about a week. Can you imagine that? Everybody else has been together for a couple months. Just to see each day how we’re getting better, so by the time we get to Rio, man, it’s going to be exciting to watch. It’s going to be scary.”
Scary for opponents, at least. With such an accomplished roster of scorers, passers and defenders, controlling excitement during big moments is easier said than done. If Delle Donne isn’t scoring from everywhere, Diana Taurasi easily can shoulder the take the load. That’s before mentioning Tina Charles, who went 0-3 against Australia but recorded a 17-point outburst vs. France. Blocks have proved equally timely, evidenced by the U.S.’s 10 rejections to their opponents four through two exhibition games. When shots are going up, the U.S. Women’s National Team’s been plus-19 on the boards.
The ultimate fun is getting buckets, though. Despite Australia’s gritty opposition Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Team still managed 104 points, converting 27 of 33 free throw attempts to combat Australia’s aggressive defense. When they weren’t owning the charity stripe, the U.S. Women’s National Team found great fortune in riding hot hands, to the pleasure of both the crowd and bench.
“I told E. (Delle Donne) earlier as long as me and you in the pick-and-roll, I’m gonna be okay,” two-time gold medalist Seimone Augustus laughed. “Just to see Diana finally put the ball in the basket, do what she does, what she’s been doing all her career, it really felt good. What she made, like two in a row? If she made her third, we were going to go crazy. It’s just good that we’re finally getting into a great vibe.”
Asked about the fun behind watching teammates find their rhythm, McCoughtry couldn’t contain her excitement.
“It’s so much, because everybody just knows how to play. It’s a breath of fresh air to be here. You have no stress, nobody has to be Superman. Everybody can just play their game and be at ease. It’s amazing.”
But, as their trip to Rio approaches and exhibition play closes, the U.S. Women’s National Team reflected on the importance of remaining engaged, especially after a tough showing from Australia.
“We needed it. Honestly, I think we might see them in the final games,” McCoughtry admitted. “I think they’re one of the best teams there. I think Turkey is, too, but I don’t think we’re going to see anyone as good as Australia. They just have it, you know, especially with Cambage. We needed this test. I’m glad we got this friendly game with them before a tough stretch. We’ll be ready, more ready than we are today.”
Augustus echoed McCoughtry’s sentiments, acknowledging the challenge behind the U.S. Women’s National Team’s quest for a sixth-straight gold medal.
“Everyone asks us, ‘Who’s your biggest competition?’ and it really doesn’t matter. Every team is going to compete at the highest level, when they play U.S.A. Australia’s one of those teams we always face in the medal rounds. We just gotta continue to stay focused, because teams are going to battle back like they did today. What, they cut it to six at half?”
So how does the U.S. Women’s National Team craft shortened leads and spirited victories into a sixth-straight gold medal celebration? Augustus, also a three-time WNBA champion with the Minnesota Lynx, is rather practical about the approach.
“We just gotta stay focused and be able to close teams out.”