(L-R) Diana Taurasi and Sabrina Ionescu following the exhibition game against the University of Oregon on Nov. 9, 2019 in Eugene, Oregon.
After winning six consecutive Olympic gold medals, and eight of the 11 awarded to date, the U.S. women’s basketball program has clearly established itself as the best in the world.
“This is a dynasty,” Cheryl Reeve, assistant coach of the U.S. women’s team and head coach of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, told TeamUSA.org. “USA Basketball, women’s basketball, is a dynasty.”
And that’s what made Saturday’s stunning win by the University of Oregon over Team USA so special.
Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon’s All-America senior guard who has won gold medals with three U.S. national teams in international competition and appears on track to one day make a U.S. Olympic Team, scored a game-high 30 points in the Ducks’ 93-86 victory.
More than 11,000 fans packed Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene, Oregon, for the memorable night that concluded the first leg of an NCAA tour by the U.S. national team.
“This is what it should be,” Reeve said, before Saturday’s game, of the atmosphere surrounding the tour. “I think it’s been interesting to see each college town embrace the national team being on their campus. The players in particular have been really excited, and the communities and fan bases, I think they have really enjoyed watching up close and personal parts of the dynasty perform.”
Especially, it would seem, Saturday.
“The University of Oregon was thrilled to have Team USA on campus in preparation for the 2020 Olympic Games,” said Rob Mullens, athletic director at the University of Oregon. “We’re so proud of our Olympic development tradition on campus and we were excited to expose our Ducks to the country’s top athletes as we get our women’s basketball season underway.”
Ionescu, the 2019 Wooden Award winner, and the Ducks delivered an iconic moment for a team that opened the season on Monday at No. 1 in the country.
And for Team USA, it was a lesson.
“This is what we wanted on this college tour,” said Team USA guard Sue Bird, a four-time Olympic gold medalist who plays for the WNBA’s Seattle Storm. “It just goes to show that you’re never too old to learn some lessons.”
Saturday’s game against Oregon completed a four-game tour that produced three wins for Team USA at Stanford, Oregon State and Texas A&M. But there will be more. The national team, which has already qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by winning the 2018 FIBA World Cup, will play Connecticut, led by former Olympic coach Geno Auriemma, in January and Louisville in February.
All of the game action is intended to make the world’s most powerful team even better. More than 10 years have passed since the U.S. national team warmed up for the Olympics by playing college teams, and Saturday was almost exactly 20 years since the team’s only other loss to an NCAA opponent.
“Yes, it’s been amazing,” Sylvia Fowles, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, told TeamUSA.org. “It also gives you that sense of urgency, I guess, because these kids are young and they’re agile and they get out there and run. And we haven’t done this for a while. Especially for the veterans, we’ve been out of school for like 12 to 15 years. So they give us a challenge, but at the same time they give women the opportunity to come out and showcase their talents. The atmosphere has been great.”
Although the U.S. doesn’t have its full roster for the NCAA tour, the players taking part have a combined 15 Olympic gold medals. However, they’ve had to come together quickly following their recent WNBA seasons.
“It’s been an evolution. You think about how we got together and had just one practice as we embarked on our first college game against Stanford,” Reeve said. “It’s been an evolution in terms of learning in games, not a lot of practice time. But it’s a veteran group obviously and they’ve jelled quickly, kind of embraced each challenge.”
The tour also connected the USA Basketball national team with the college game. Shootaround practices and games were followed by college players conversing with the Team USA players in cordial get-together sessions.
On the court, it was all business, as Oregon proved Saturday in front of its home fans. Fowles, a 6-foot-6 center who plays for the Lynx, has found herself staring up at opposing players.
“We’ve been playing against these teams, and these girls are huge,” Fowles said. “It’s rare that I actually have to look up to players, but I’ve been looking up at a lot of players these last couple of college games.”
The payoff for playing actual games is significant, Reeve said.
“I think so. I think it’s really valuable,” she said. “In the past, when you think about being in maybe a couple of three-day training camps, you might have a scrimmage in there. I think from a player’s perspective the meaningful nature of the work they’re putting in in game-like situations, I think it helps competitively. I think it helps Dawn (Staley, head coach) and the committee in terms of the selection process and then certainly the chemistry that’s built through playing in the games.”
The next stop for the national team is Bahia Blanca, Argentina, where the U.S. will face Brazil, Argentina and Colombia, beginning Thursday in the FIBA Americas Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
For Fowles, it’s all about the defense.
“Our defense. It’s not exactly what we want it to be, so that’s something we need to work on looking forward to 2020 in Tokyo,” Fowles said. “Our offense has been clicking throughout the games, everybody can score. Just being on the same page defensively is something, I think, that we need to work on.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.