It’s Not Your Typical All-Star Game as WNBA Stars Hand Defeat to USA National Team
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With just one practice so far, the USA Women’s National Team has room to improve, especially on defense.
While several members of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team have played together previously in this Olympic cycle, Wednesday marked the first time the group of 12 headed for the Tokyo Olympics was in uniform together.
With just one practice under their belt and the Olympic opener looming in less than two weeks, the U.S. dropped the first of three pre-Tokyo games when it fell 93-85 to the WNBA All-Stars at Michelob ULTRA Arena at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. It was an unusual stumble for the USA, which is going for an unprecedented seventh consecutive gold medal in Tokyo.
“I think we learned we’re not a team yet,” said U.S. point guard Sue Bird, who along with Diana Taurasi is a four-time Olympic gold medalist. “We’ve had one practice, and this group has never played together before. So, I think we learned it’s never as simple as throwing 12 of the best out there and it just clicks. That’s never been the case. It’s never been the case of any of the Olympics we’ve been in.”
Three U.S. players scored in double digits, led by Brittney Griner with 17 points. Breanna Stewart added 15 points, six rebounds and three assists, while Sylvia Fowles scored 12 and had a team-leading seven rebounds.
The WNBA’s Arike Ogunbowale scored nine of her 26 points in the fourth quarter and was named All-Star MVP.
“I thought we got off to a pretty decent start on both sides of the basketball,” U.S. coach Dawn Staley said. “And then throughout the game, the habits that we did not create yet were not in place. So, defensively we’ve got our work cut out for us. Offensively, we’ve got to get some more chemistry and work together a little bit and learn each other’s tendencies. We got beat by a good basketball team. The WNBA All-Stars are great players, and they played with nothing to lose.”
No one expected this to be a typical All-Star Game, where defense is lacking and offense is in overdrive, and this proved not to be from certain aspects. After all, what coach calls a timeout 3:23 into an All-Star Game? It happened after the U.S. countered the WNBA’s opening hoop by scoring 11 of the next 13 points.
“It wasn’t going to be an All-Star Game,” Stewart said.
And unlike the three previous meetings between the U.S. National Team and WNBA stars — when the U.S. won by an average of 23 points — this game was tight until the end.
“I think it’s more on the defensive end where we can definitely improve — rebounding, second-chance points, just hustle plays,” Griner said.
Giving up 93 points is never ideal. The WNBA shot 46.4% (39-84 FGs), while the U.S. made 47.3% (35-74 FGs) of its shots. But the USA lost the rebounding battle 41-37. Jonquel Jones had 14 boards for the WNBA, double that of U.S. leader Fowles.
What Wednesday’s game really showed is how the depth of American basketball continues to grow. The WNBA team had seven first-time All-Stars, compared to the U.S. having the WNBA’s all-time leaders in points (Diana Taurasi), assists (Bird) and rebounds (Fowles) on its roster. Taurasi, who has a hip muscle strain, was the only USA athlete who didn’t play.
“We lost to All-Stars,” guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, playing in her 50th game with USA Basketball, said of the WNBA team, which included three players on foreign Olympic teams. “We have a lot of players in our league that are capable. It’s the toughest league to get into, and it’s the toughest league to stay in. Hats off to them. You have to give credit. They played hard, they made shots, they played free.”
Wednesday’s loss kept the U.S. stuck at 199 exhibition wins, something Staley and her players hope changes either Friday against Australia or Sunday against Nigeria in the final tune-up before Tokyo.
“This has always been the challenge with USA Basketball, I think we’ve said this ad nauseam,” Bird said of coming together and building chemistry. “These things can really take a whole training camp or months or years, and we always try and do it in a matter of days or weeks.”
Between the third and fourth quarters, the 1996 U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team was honored. That group is credited with helping to launch the WNBA, which played its first season the following summer. Six of those players — Teresa Edwards (2011), Sheryl Swoopes (2016), Katrina McClain (2012), Dawn Staley (2013), Rebecca Lobo (2017) and Lisa Leslie (2015) — have been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, as has the 1996 USA head coach Tara VanDerveer.
Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.