RIO DE JANEIRO — The last time the U.S. women’s basketball team lost an Olympic game, the WNBA didn’t even exist.
It was 1992 in Barcelona, when the U.S lost 79-73 in the semifinals to Russia. They went on to win the bronze medal in those Olympics when they defeated Cuba 88-74.
That win began a 46-game Olympic winning streak that includes the first five games the U.S. team has played here in Rio.
But Olympic veteran guard Diana Taurasi said her teammates have never let the 24-year run of victories go to their heads.
“We feel like the underdogs, we feel like we have (something) to prove every time we step on the court,” said Taurasi, who is playing in her fourth Olympics. “I think that’s why this run has been so special because we’ve never relaxed, we’ve never disrespected an opponent. There’s that edge every time we step on the court.”
She credits Team USA head coach Geno Auriemma for molding a strong team made up of women more used to being adversaries on the court during WNBA play.
“The last thing you want to do is one guy take 20 shots a game. That’s not the way we’re built and that’s not the way coach wants us to play,” she said. “We want to be a team that moves the ball, that is unguardable, unscoutable, that when you watch us play, you don’t know what we’re doing.”
After a chuckle, she continued, “because half the time, we don’t know what we’re doing.”
Sue Bird, who has played with Taurasi on Team USA since Athens in 2004, thinks playing in the WNBA gives members of Team USA an edge.
“Maybe other countries would get better if they play in the WNBA more just because you’ll be going against the best talent every single night,” Bird said. “You’ll get to measure yourself and understand what you need to do to get better.”
With the Olympics falling during the WNBA season, the league took a break between July 23 and Aug. 25. This gave the national team just one week of practice in Los Angeles before they flew to Rio de Janeiro to start group play.
Despite the minimal time spent together before the Olympics began, Auriemma is confident in his team.
“We’ve done a lot of great things offensively; we’ve done some great things defensively,” he said. “We’ve gotten contributions from a lot of different people. So, I would say our team feels really really good about themselves right now.”
Entering Tuesday’s quarterfinal matchup with Japan, Team USA is averaging 104 points per game. If it can maintain that pace, the U.S. would break the Olympic record of 102 points per game, set in Atlanta by the 1996 U.S. team that won the first gold medal in this historic run.
When asked which was more difficult, winning a national championship or a gold medal, Auriemma shook his head as if there was no comparison.
“Oh hell yeah, winning a gold medal,” he said. “This is way harder than anything I’ve ever done at UConn. Way harder.”