USA National Team Steps Onto the Court in Las Vegas
For the highly successful USA Basketball Women’s National Team that has compiled an 80-1 record in major international competition since 1996, which also started its string of five-straight Olympic gold medals, every four years normally marks a new beginning.
This time, however, something is different. For the first time in modern history, USA Basketball asked a women’s Olympic head coach to return for another four years.
University of Connecticut’s Hall of Fame head coach Geno Auriemma returns to the helm after coaching the USA squad to the 2010 FIBA World Championship and 2012 Olympic gold medals.
“When you look at all the new players here, it’s kind of nice to be able to stay consistent as far as what we’ve done the last four years,” said three-time Olympian Tamika Catchings, who began her USA Basketball career in 1996. Now we’re moving into the next four years and not much is going to change. Some players come and go, but being able to build off of the success that we’ve already had is really good.”
With many of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team members competing in the WNBA Finals or sidelined by some minor injuries, today’s practice session at Cox Pavilion practice gym on the UNLV campus afforded some of the younger players the opportunity to show their mettle against each other.
“What’s that saying? Familiarity breeds contempt. The majority of the guys who played in 2012, they know me, and they’re so smart that 90 percent of them took the day off today. So, maybe they learned too much (laughs),” joked Auriemma. “The injury thing is something I could never, never predict. Obviously we have a bunch of guys who aren’t here because they’re playing in the Finals and then the ones that are here, other than Tamika Catchings … Tamika Catchings might have been the only one on the floor that had played in the Olympics. We had a lot of players here who are going through this for the first time, so it was really good for them.”
There wasn’t any full-court scrimmaging going on as Auriemma focused on teaching the newcomers his system – both offensively and defensively. He knows that with limited training time, he’s got a lot of work to do if he hopes to repeat at the FIBA World Championship. That said, it’s good to have veterans help the newcomers adjust to his system so they’re ready if they make the USA National Team.
“It’s something that we have to deal with all the time with USA Basketball,” said Auriemma. “We just don’t have the time. Their schedules are such that we have to cram in whatever we can. So, having some continuity, I know them, they know me, the learning curve is a little bit less steep. The fact that they’re so good and they’ve done this for so many years, I think had we had a real young team and this limited amount of time, it would be very difficult. They make it easy because they’re really, really good at what they do.”
Stepping out on the court as part of the group of 33 USA National Team hopefuls on the list are six collegiate athletes (Bria Hartley was rehabbing an ankle did not travel to Las Vegas), most of whom have logged games at the junior level for USA Basketball, but this marked the first time wearing the red uniform that is reserved for the USA Women’s National Team program.
“It was good, just being our first day,” said Baylor University guard Odyssey Simms, who was Co-MVP of the 2013 World University Games. “I got to learn a lot, just the experience of being with WNBA players, veterans, newer guys and learning a lot from rookies and older guys.”
“It’s so much fun,” added University of Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride. “Just to be out here with the best players in the country like Tamika (Catchings), Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, all these legends in my eyes. It’s just a really great experience for me, being in college and having a chance for the USA team.”
They, along with several young WNBA players, seemed to have impressed the most veteran athlete on the court.
“I think all of them, the energy was there,” said Catchings. “It’s the first day and everybody was trying to learn, get in and get your feet wet. Kind of get a feel of where do I need to be. From there, tomorrow the intensity will be higher. The focus will be a lot better. Now they know a little bit of what to expect. So, tomorrow will be a better day.
“For them, even just being able to experience the high level that we play at, they haven’t been in the pros,” she added about the collegiate athletes. The WNBA is a step up from college and then the Olympics is like another step up from that. Being able to have that is going to be really good for them.”
In addition to going up against a myriad of talented pros, McBride and Sims were reunited on the court with former college teammates. McBride got to team up again with the Tulsa Shock’s Skylar Diggins and Sims with the Phoenix Mercury’s Brittney Griner, both of whom claimed 2013 WNBA All-Rookie Team honors.
“It kind of takes a little bit of pressure off, having Sky out there and knowing she’s cheering for me just like I’m cheering for her,” said McBride. “She kept coming up to me telling me ‘good job’ and telling me things I need to work on. It’s just good to have that person who has the best interests for you.”
“It was awesome when I heard she got invited and was going to be here,” added Sims. “I get to be reunited with my post again. It’s always fun being around her. She’s a big kid. I enjoy her all the time.”
Overall, despite not having many veterans on the court, both Auriemma and Catchings considered it a good day.
“I thought it went really well,” stated Catchings. “We have a lot of new faces, a lot of new people, but it’s a good mix of players who have been here before too. I thought the energy level was really high at the practice.”
“Not bad. Not bad at all,” Auriemma said. “We’re in a tough spot, you know? We’ve got a lot of players and are kind of hamstrung by the space, but tomorrow we’ll have a lot more room and we’ll be able to get a lot more done. Today was more of a … those that know me, they knew what to expect, so that was easy. There are a lot of guys here that don’t know me and don’t know our system, don’t know what we want. So, it was really good for them to get acclimated and I thought we made a lot of progress.”
Find out what else Catchings, Sims and McBride had to say about today’s practice:
Kayla McBride (University of Notre Dame)
Were you shell-shocked when you first stepped out on the court?
A little bit. During stretching I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! This is really happening!’ But I have to remember that we’re all playing the same game and I just have to go out there and do what I do best, try to play hard and do the little things.
How did you feel you played today?
I did all right. Playing against the best, you have to take it up a notch. It’s not college. It’s not anything like that. I think it’s really good for me, just to know what’s ahead.
What’s it like being coached by Geno Auriemma?
It’s definitely interesting because you see how similar his style is. He coaches a great team in UConn and you can see why they’re so good.
What are you hoping to get out of the weekend?
Just to get better. To learn, talk to people and network, just to find out what it’s about. Find out about the professional life. Being a senior, I’m trying to enjoy myself and ride it out, but I always keep looking ahead.
Did it help having some teammates from your 2011 USA Basketball team out there?
Yes, it helped a lot. Nneka (Ogwumike) was on the team, Skylar (Diggins). I’m learning from them. They’re talking to me. Tamika Catchings, she’s leading me. So, I’m really just following and learning at the same time, but also trying to lead, too.
On playing for Geno:
I think he’s a great coach. He has eight national championships and he obviously knows basketball very well. The stuff we did today, we were doing shell and offensive spacing. He taught it really well. And reading the defense, you don’t have to be basketball smart to know that if someone’s over playing, you go back door. It’s just basically about the spacing and I think he did a really good job talking about how good it is to space, know each other and get the ball to the open person.
What are you hoping to get out of this weekend?
Just to get better. Give it my all while I’m here this weekend. No matter the outcome, just keep playing.