Saturday, April 21, 2018
Sports

Highest of heights

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — What must it be like to compete against these women, the dozen who make up the U.S. basketball team? They are tall and strong, quick and agile, skilled and fierce.

The Rio Olympics have been defined, understandably, by Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, by Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. The truth: No athletes in Rio have been more dominant and peerless than the American women who play basketball. "I'm in awe," guard Seimone Augustus said, "all the time when I look around — at everyone."

Don't forget that, even after the latest laugher, a 101-72 victory over Spain on Saturday that gave the U.S. women's team its sixth straight gold medal. The Americans have raised standards in almost every way, making them almost unreachable, what with their 49th consecutive Olympic victory.

"We just keep pushing it up higher and higher," Olympic rookie Brittney Griner said. "I don't know how high it can go up. We just want it to keep going up. We don't want it to go down — at all."

There are so many ways to demonstrate the dominance: The Americans won their eight games by an average of 31.5 points. They shot 58 percent from the floor; their opponents shot 37 percent. They outrebounded their opponents by an average 20.5 boards per game. No other team in Rio has delivered in such a fashion. Indeed, the discussion centers more around whether any team ever has.

"Right now, we're at a real high level," coach Geno Auriemma said. "We're at a real high level that maybe nobody's ever seen before. We're doing stuff that may never be done again."

Part of that is because of the women's basketball program's remarkable ability to seamlessly hand off responsibilities from generation to generation. In the 2004 Games, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings were bit players on a squad that featured some of the sport's legends: Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley.

"We saw them not care about points," Bird said. "Not care about rebounds. Not care about any stat on the stat sheet."

That, in turn, became the way Taurasi, Bird and Catchings played on the national team. Saturday, each won her fourth gold medal. As important, they showed the first-time Olympians — Griner, Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne — what qualities it takes to succeed on the Olympic team.

"They set an example that today, I think, a lot of it is missing," Auriemma said. "There's a lot of entitlement out there in sports today. You have three Hall of Fame players that don't feel like they're entitled to anything. No matter what they've done, they show up every day and feel like they have to earn it."

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