USA Women’s National Team Embracing The Target On Their Backs
USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo addressed the USA Basketball Women’s National Team after finishing an intensely competitive practice on Tuesday afternoon in Houston, bluntly delivering a resounding message -- you have a target on your back.
Playing for a country that has won five consecutive gold medals and hasn’t lost an Olympic game since 1992, winning 41 straight by an average score of 30 points per game, none of the players are shying away from that challenge.
“I’d rather have a target on my back than have to hit a small target,” Brittney Griner said. “I would rather know that we’re going to get everybody’s best shot and know we’re going to get everybody’s best game. When we rise up to that, we’re going to get gold.”
U.S. women’s head coach Geno Auriemma is no stranger to high expectations of winning. His program at the University of Connecticut has won a staggering four consecutive NCAA championships and has shown no signs of slowing down. Auriemma’s approach to pressure at UConn is similar to his approach with USA Basketball.
“When you know you’re good and you know you’ve done it and you know what you have to do to get it, I think you have to turn that pressure around on the other team,” Auriemma said. “We already know that if we lose, nobody is going to be more devastated than us. So we don’t allow ourselves to think like that.”
Auriemma sets the tone of his high expectations in practice. His players are fiercely competitive and maintain a constant grueling physicality. Every shot is contested, every rebound is a battle, and every screen is a hard screen.
Breanna Stewart might be a first-timer to USA Basketball, but as a former Husky who just wrapped up her senior season, she’s well aware of Auriemma’s expectations.
“We’re trying to make each other feel comfortable in practice so we get that sense of comfort later,” Stewart said. “Every day we’ve been together, we’ve gotten better.”
Former UConn All-America recipient, Maya Moore also knows the value of a challenging practice.
“I think it gives us confidence to know that we’re going up against the most competitive players in each other,” Moore said. “We’re pushing each other so we can know what to expect. If we can do it against each other, we can do it against anyone else in the world.”
Every player maintains that competitive edge because they know their time is short. With less than two weeks to prepare between their first practice and their first game, the players have embraced their short turnaround.
“We’re all rivals, but we turn that off out here and support each other because we all understand what it took to get here,” Elena Delle Donne said. “Now that we’re on the same team, it’s so refreshing and exciting.”
Despite their hard work, Auriemma still manages to sneak in some fun and humor into his practices. At one point during Tuesday’s practice, he rooted for Griner to get a dunk in.
Instead of dunking, though, she opted for a layup. Turns out, there was a reason for that.
“The first time I played for him, he told me, ‘If you dunk, you better make it because if you miss, you’re coming out so you better make sure you make it,’” Griner recalled.
When asked if that rule still holds up in Rio, Auriemma belted out a hearty laugh.
“I said, ‘Two points is two points -- I don’t care what you do to get them, but if you have a dead-open layup and you try to dunk it and it doesn’t go in, no one’s going to feel more silly than you,’” Auriemma said. “I hope she gets a chance to do it, though.”
With their preliminary round opener against Senegal coming up on Sunday morning, Auriemma said he expects his team to get better every day. With three first-time Olympians, four one-time gold medalists, two two-time gold medalists and three four-time gold medalists, the roster has a perfect balance of Olympic experience.
Now, it’s just a matter of playing up to their expectations with that target on their backs.
“I don’t want to let down the players who came in here and set the standard,” Griner said. “They really set the bar high, and I don’t want to taint that legacy. I don’t want to disappoint anybody.”