RIO DE JANEIRO — Call them the Extreme Team.
Team USA defeated Spain 101-72 Saturday at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games to win its sixth straight gold medal in women’s basketball and a record eighth overall in the 10 Olympic Games in which the United States has participated.
By scoring more than 100 points in six of its eight games, this edition of Team USA is the most prolific Olympic scoring machine, exceeding the five 100-point games in 1996, the year the United States began its two decades of Olympic dominance.
“I’m pretty sad it’s over, but if it had to end, it ended the right way,” said Elena Delle Donne, one of only three newcomers on the team with nine players returning from the previous Olympic Games or before.
“I, for sure, didn’t want to be the first to not get that gold medal,” Delle Donne added, “but that was never the focus, which was why these older players were so great. It was always just about this team, nothing about the past. What they’ve achieved, that’s never going to be taken from them. And what this team has achieved is what this team did together.”
Team USA extended its winning streak to 49-0 dating back to the bronze-medal game at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games and has a 66-3 record overall.
Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi won their fourth consecutive gold medals, joining Team USA legends Lisa Leslie and Teresa Edwards, who also have four gold medals in women’s basketball (Edwards also has a bronze). Only five other female athletes in various sports have claimed four titles in the same event.
“I don’t think I’ve been around a group that’s this talented and played this hard,” said Bird. “When you get together as a team and you know you only have a month to do something, it’s remarkable in so many ways. We were able to do this together, leave no question marks and this puts us on the map as arguably one of the best teams ever.”
Against Spain at the Carioca 1 Arena, Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen led Team USA with 17 points each, while Maya Moore had 14, including 12 in the first half. Whalen and Moore tallied six assists apiece while Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles both grabbed seven rebounds as Team USA dominated the boards.
Winning the sixth straight gold, said Taurasi, is “just setting the bar so high. I hope the next crop of kids know how hard this has been. You do have history, you do have the pressure of everyone who plays basketball on your back. Because that’s what you need to be great. I think that everyone who puts this jersey on feels that and that’s why we feel like the underdog every game. It sounds silly. It sounds dumb, but that’s the way we feel.”
It’s certainly not the way it looked on the scoreboard.
The U.S. women’s team composed of WNBA stars opened their Rio tournament by setting a record with 121 points over Senegal, while also tying the 3-pointers record with 10. They went on to set an assists record of 40 and their margin of victory was 37.25 points for their eight games, second-highest for a U.S. team behind the 2008 squad (37.6).
When they were good, they were very, very good. And when they were bad, they were awful — but not for long.
Team USA had already walloped Spain 103-63 on Aug. 8, but both squads got off to rough starts Saturday with the score 5-5 after 4 minutes of play. As Team USA committed turnovers and missed shots, Spain pulled ahead 12-10, extending its lead to 17-14.
Team USA then went on a 7-0 run, capped by four points from Angel McCoughtry, to close out the first quarter.
Bird, who injured her right knee in the Aug. 16 game against Japan, and did not play in the 87-67 semifinal win over France, opened the second quarter with a 3-pointer and Team USA was rolling again. The Americans took a 49-32 lead into halftime.
“For us, you cannot commit a mistake — never — against the United States,” said Laia Palau, whose team won the first women’s basketball medal for Spain.
With IOC President Thomas Bach and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in attendance, Team USA kept Spain at bay in the second half and led by 35 points at the end of the third quarter.
“It wasn’t as easy as sometimes it looked,” said Geno Auriemma, the University of Connecticut coach who won his second Olympic gold medal guiding Team USA. “These last two games, especially with France and Spain, these are very good teams we’re playing and you could see it wasn’t just a cakewalk, it was a struggle. Finally, because of our depth, because of the experience we have on our team, we were able to separate ourselves.”
Ann Meyers Drysdale, the NBC commentator who won a silver medal in the first Olympic basketball tournament for women at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, said that if not for one bad game in 1992, the streak could have been nine straight gold medals going back to 1984.
“Is this the greatest right now?” she asked. “Probably. But who knows what’s going to happen in 2020. Honestly you could have eight players come back. ‘Catch’ is the only one that’s really announced that she’s retiring.”
For Catchings, Bird and Taurasi, their Olympic journey began at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games when Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley, an assistant coach in Rio, were on the team.
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“It seems like a really long time ago,” Bird said. “We knew the three of us were on that team to learn, to see what it means to represent the U.S. at an Olympic event and to take the torch and to run with it. We were really lucky to have veteran players, both with their play and their words. We saw Hall of Fame players not care about points, rebounds or about any stat. They only cared about the gold medal and we learned from them.”
Delle Donne grew up watching what became the next generation of veterans, especially Taurasi.
“I idolized her greatly,” she said. “She’s a big reason why I fell in love with the game. There were just moments in that game (against Spain) where I had to just shake my head and smile at what she was doing. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is what I watched way back when and now I’m suited up next to her.’
"To get this (gold medal) with them has meant the world to me and I really believe that they’ve ingrained something in us young players that will last forever and we’ll be able to teach the younger ones coming up.”
Delle Donne said they passed on the concept of having fun every time they step on the floor.
“Not only that, but they’ve got a laser focus, that I really haven’t’ seen before,” she said. “They got us to that level as well with them. Also, there’s a calming presence that they give. We know ‘They’ve got this.’ In the end we’re going to ride their coattails.”
Auriemma, who became emotional after the game — "I saw the tears!” said Moore. “He’s a grandpa now. Can’t hold it back!” — acknowledged that the gap has widened between the United States and the rest of the world.
“Right now, we’re at a really high level that maybe nobody’s ever seen before,” he said. “It’s not that they’re getting weaker, but women’s basketball is getting stronger and stronger in the U.S.
“If you just took us out of the tournament, this would be an amazing tournament. Unfortunately, we’re not going anywhere.”
Unfortunately, for the other countries, perhaps, but good fortune for Team USA.