A Look Back: USA National Team Buries Collegians 97-31 as Nell Fortner Becomes USA Basketball's All-Time Winningest Coach
USA Basketball is streaming select nation team exhibition contests every Tuesday (women) and Thursday (men) through July 9. This week’s women’s national team exhibition re-air is from Sept. 3, 2000, when the 1999-2000 USA National Team earned win No. 34 of its eventual 38 victories ahead of the Sydney Olympics in a blowout exhibition against a USA Select Team of collegians, 97-31. The game will be streamed 8 p.m. EDT at USAB.com/live and on USA Basketball Twitter and Facebook pages. During the re-air, 2000 USA National Team members Nikki McCray and Katie Smith and head coach Nell Fortner will recall their favorite memories from the match-up against the college squad.
The 1999-2000 USA Basketball Women's National Team posted its fifth pre-Olympic Tour win on Sept. 3, 2000, with a 97-31 thrashing of the USA Select Team in Honolulu, upping its year-long record to 34-2.
Comprised of some of the nation's top collegians, including eventual four-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird, the USA Select Team fell behind early and was never able to recover. The national team relied on a balanced offensive attack that featured six players scoring in double figures, including a game-high 14 points from Chamique Holdsclaw.
The game also marked a coaching milestone for USA head coach Nell Fortner, who became USA Basketball's all-time winningest coach (89-14, .864), surpassing Stanford University head coach Tara VanDerveer's record of 88 USA Basketball head coaching victories. With 100 head coaching victories with USA Basketball, Fortner still holds the record for women’s head coaches, but was surpassed in 2016 by Mike Krzyzewski, who was head coach for 115 USA wins on the men’s side.
“I was one of the babies,” recalled Katie Smith, who was preparing for what would be the first of three Olympic golds. “You know, you have the vets, Dawn (Staley) and Lisa (Leslie) and those guys, Teresa (Edwards), Ruthie (Bolton), I mean, it's just … you look at the squad and you watched them in ’96, you've been able to play with them. And I always love what USA Basketball, Jennifer, Azzi, all those guys, taught us and showed us. They just showed us the way. This is how you go about business. This is the work you put in. This is how we carry ourselves. This is the legacy that they've created, and they taught us this is how we do it.”
The USA Select Team scored the game's first basket 57 seconds into the game to take a 2-0 advantage, but that was the only lead they would have the entire game. After scoring its first basket at the 18:47 mark to knot the game at 2-2, the USA National Team went on a 26-3 tear and led 28-5 at the 10:06 mark. The collegians never managed to get on track as the national team continued its first half onslaught and carried an insurmountable 50-17 advantage into the locker room.
“We had so much depth at every position,” remarked Nikki McCray-Penson. “Everybody brought something different to the table. In particular in that game it was like the pros versus the little babies, and they felt that. They couldn’t get anything going.”
The eventual 2000 Olympic gold medalists continued to pull away from the college squad as their lead ballooned to 76-23 midway through the second half. The U.S. limited the collegians to 14 points in the second half to cap the 97-31 victory.
Smith, who in 1996 was on the losing end of a 92-57 game between the USA National Team and a group of college all-stars, remembers the feeling of being trounced by professionals.
“I remember it (in 1996), I remember coach Summitt, that was really my only time Pat Summitt coached me. I got recruited by her, but she was our coach. And we got smacked, you know, against the 1996 team, who … there was no other team that was as conditioned, just like a well-oiled machine. Those guys just ran us out of the gym.
“I look at that (2000 USA Select Team) roster, and just some of the familiar names with Birdie (Sue Bird), (Jackie) Stiles, (Kelly) Schumacher, (Brooke) Wyckoff. But honestly, at the end of the day, it was about us showing and doing and playing at a level that didn't matter what the score was, didn't matter what was going on, we're going to go out there and the effort will be at this level at all times.”
Joining Holdsclaw in the double figures scoring column for the U.S. were Yolanda Griffith with 12 points; Lisa Leslie with 12; DeLisha Milton with 11; Sheryl Swoopes with 11 and Ruthie Bolton with 10. Leslie also earned game-high rebounding honors with six, while Teresa Edwards dished out a game-high seven assists.
Schumacher was the USA Select Team’s leading scorer with eight points, and Stiles scored seven. Bird finished with three assists.
“The one thing about Sue Bird is that she is a student of the game,” added McCray-Penson. “She just has what it takes to be a point guard and to run a team. Obviously, you could tell that USA Basketball was going to be in good hands. Having the chance to guard her, she handled pressure with grace. She was being guarded by players who had been pros for a while, and she handled that.”
As a team, the USA National Team dominated in every phase of the game as they shot a scorching 67.7% from the field, which marked the team's best shooting percentage since the beginning of its 36-game tour. The USA seniors also forced the select squad into committing 26 turnovers and outrebounded the collegians 39-23.
“It was really good to see the girls who were in college,” said McCray-Penson. They were vying to be us one day and were just taking it all in. I think they really enjoyed the moment and just knew that it was hard work to do what we do.”
The U.S. squad went on to collect the gold medal in Sydney by a margin of 21.7 points per game, including a 76-54 victory over host Australia in the gold medal game.
“We were playing on a contender’s court, Australia in Sydney, and that’s when you want to be playing your best,” McCray-Penson stated. “And I thought we were playing our best basketball during the Olympic Games.”