RIO DE JANEIRO— The U.S. women’s basketball team is approaching uncharted waters in pursuit of its sixth consecutive gold medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
The team moved one step closer on Thursday night by defeating France, 86-67, to advance to the gold-medal match. It was the U.S. women’s 48th consecutive win at the Olympics.
“It has been tough and it hasn’t been an easy road,” Angel McCoughtry said. “It is going to mean a lot as we are ready for the gold-medal game. We got to be serious and really get this (the gold medal).”
Diana Taurasi scored 18 points and Maya Moore added 15 to lead five double-figure scorers.
Only the U.S. men’s basketball team and India’s field hockey team have navigated the high tides en route to six consecutive Olympic gold medals. India won six from 1928-1950, while the U.S. men won seven straight from 1936-1968.
So what makes this U.S. women’s team so dominant?
Head coach Geno Auriemma said the answer is the veteran leadership. Auriemma, who coached the U.S. to a gold medal in London in 2012, said this group is comparable to the 1996 gold-medal team.
“We had to do it in a shorter timeframe but the players that we have are maybe the most versatile group that we had in a long time,” he said.
Entering Friday’s game, both teams had similar statistics. The 2016 team has averaged 105 points and 44.7 rebounds, while the 1996 team put up 102.4 points and 42.9 rebounds.
However, the 2016 team may have faced more adversity. The U.S. lost starting point guard Sue Bird to a knee sprain that kept her out of the semifinal game.
“Our players found out today that without Sue (Bird), there is big difference in our team, the way we played today and the last six games,” Auriemma said. “It was a lot of adjusting on the fly and we are better off for it. We will be more prepared going into Saturday.”
The team is now counting on Taurasi, a four-time Olympian, to lead the team while hoping Bird can play on Saturday.
“We can move Diana (Taurasi) around a lot of different ways,” Auriemma said. “She has got to be initiating it with one of them (Bird or Lindsay Whalen) out of the lineup.”
Taurasi, one of three players looking for a fourth gold medal, is leading the team in scoring with an average of 15.4 points. As a group, the U.S. is outscoring opponents by an average of 41.7 points.
However, it is the defensive effort that is keeping the U.S. in games.
In the quarterfinals against Japan, the team shut down the Japanese offensive attack by allowing only 13 points over the final 20 minutes. This includes the five points the U.S. surrendered in the final quarter.
The result in the semifinal against France was similar.
The U.S. opened the first six minutes with a strong defensive effort, making its first four shots and extending the lead to 13 points. France wouldn’t get any closer as the lead swelled to 20 points.
“We came out against Japan and put the clamps down on the defensive end,” Brittney Griner said. “I think we did that this third quarter and held them to eight (points). If we can do that every quarter, holding them like that, we can get the win.”
The U.S. hopes to continue that success against Spain in the gold-medal game. The Americans defeated Spain by 40 points in group play, but the team knows it will be a different test.
“I know they are going to watch a lot of film and adjust some things,” McCoughtry said. “They are going to try to find ways to attack our weak points. We got to adjust as well and find ways to get better.”
Auriemma wants the team to improve before he can call them one the best teams.
“I think to be considered a great team, you have to win the whole thing,” he said. “We still have one more to win.”
Jaylon Thompson is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.