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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: WNBA Stars Make USA Basketball History

The compressed, intense 2018 WNBA season — made intentionally shorter and thus more urgent — boiled down to making room for this historic, golden moment.

The U.S. Women’s National Team, anchored once again by Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, captured its third-straight FIBA World Cup gold medal in the Canary Islands on Sunday with a 73-56 win over Australia in the championship game, securing its spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

This U.S. team, led by Hall of Famer Dawn Staley, watched the confetti fall from the arena rafters after putting up a 6-0 run through the tournament that included several competitive games and a run of three wins in three days to capture gold.

 A tournament-opening 20-point win over Senegal was the closest margin ever between the two teams in five World Cup meetings. A 12-point win over China was the closest game between them in 35 years. In the semifinals, USA pulled out a hard-fought 93-77 win over Belgium, a game with six lead changes in the first half. And the title game was a predictably intense contest between the world’s two best programs.

At the end of a two-week primer for the next Olympic tournament, it appears that the rest of the world is closing in on the world’s best women’s basketball team.

Taurasi admitted this was the toughest World Cup tournament she has ever played in.

“I’m just really proud of what we did in this tournament,” Taurasi said after the title game. “This has probably been the most competitive World Cup we’ve ever played in. It’s just a lot of good teams, a lot of good players, high-level basketball.”

The entire tournament was a testament to the world-class caliber of WNBA talent.

Bird, Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart added to the celebration of a WNBA title with a FIBA gold medal.

Bird played in her first FIBA gold medal game in 2002 and became the only player in history, male or female to win four World Cup gold medals. She also broke Staley’s all-time career World Cup record.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Bird said. “I think that this time around, you never know if you’re going to be back. And now it’s my fifth time being in the World Cup. I really just want to cherish these moments. I’m just trying to take it all in, really soak it in and enjoy it.”

Stewart, the WNBA MVP and the WNBA Finals MVP, was named the FIBA World Cup’s Most Valuable Player, cementing her status as the most decorated player in the world in this moment.

Brittney Griner and Taurasi, who pushed Seattle to its limit in a thrilling WNBA semifinal series, had spectacular tournaments. Griner was named the MVP of the gold medal game, finishing with 15 points and two blocks. Taurasi was one of two USA players named to the All-Tournament team.

Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike, who was not selected for the 2016 Olympic team two years ago, solidified her status as a 2020 Olympic team front-runner with her strong performance in this tournament.

But the Americans weren’t the only team that featured WNBA stars. The Australians reached the gold medal game behind Dallas Wings star Liz Cambage, who led the tournament in scoring at 23.8 points per game.

Belgium’s Emma Meeseeman, who sat out the WNBA season to prepare for this tournament while her Washington Mystics made their first-ever appearance in the WNBA Finals, led her team in scoring at 18.5 points a game and to a semifinal berth before falling to the U.S. squad.

New York Liberty forward Kia Nurse led Team Canada in scoring at 18.2 points a game.

This was a decidedly different look for USA, with 2016 Olympians Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles sitting out the tournament after a grueling WNBA season in which their Minnesota Lynx, who came into the 2018 WNBA season with four championships in seven years, found themselves eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in August.

USA’s longtime backup point guard, Lindsay Whalen, has retired and is off to begin her coaching career at the University of Minnesota.

There were four first-time World Cup players on the roster, including reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson, forward Morgan Tuck, and guards Layshia Clarendon, Kelsey Plum, creating a pipeline of future talent to further the American dynasty in women’s basketball.

The U.S. team has won 10 World Cup titles, more than every other country combined. Since 1996, the U.S. team’s record in international tournaments is 100-1.

But gold medals never get boring.

“This was a very tough tournament and for us to be able to put it together and win says a lot about the character of this group, and I couldn’t be prouder,” Bird said.

Stewart, for one, knows what comes next after a WNBA championship and now a world championship.

“Not a bad year,” Stewart said. “It’s not a bad way to cap things off — and now it is time for a little vacation.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.