U.S. women top France
Americans wrap up preliminary round with 3-0 record
The sheer talent, the stats she has piled up, the team and individual honors she has accumulated -- all of those things would be prominently mentioned were anyone discussing Tamika Catchings' career.
But what we wouldn't really be able to do -- because this defies apt verbal description -- is describe her effort. Oh, we could try, but some things you have to see, and feel them as you're seeing them, to really know what they are.
To that end, I'll put in a time capsule in my mind one play -- although it is not unique; it represents hundreds of others -- that Catchings made Saturday against France at the FIBA World Championship for Women.
It was a third consecutive victory for Team USA, this one 81-60 over France, as the Americans completed preliminary-round play 3-0. As expected, this game was more difficult than the first two. France won the 2009 European championship with a 9-0 record to qualify for this event. France had beaten Team USA only once in six previous meetings, and that was in another-era-ago 1971.
France had defeated Senegal and Greece, as had the United States. So it wasn't really a shock that France stayed close to the Americans early, although both teams' lack of first-quarter offense -- it was 13-10 USA at the close of the period -- might have had some U.S. viewers concerned.
From there on out, Team USA's per-quarter production was good: 23, 25 and 20 points. The Americans also held France to 12 fourth-quarter points, which speaks to their freshness throughout the game because coach Geno Auriemma continues to spread out minutes.
This was an individual-skills showcase day for three of the players who've gone through his UConn program, and one who still has a year left. And also for a player who went to college in Auriemma's hometown, Philadelphia.
Diana Taurasi led Team USA with 15 points, and it was the offense from her and Phoenix Mercury teammate Candice Dupree that really jump-started the Americans in that slow first quarter.
Taurasi also had six rebounds; Dupree, the Temple graduate, had 10 points -- hitting all three of her shots from the field and all four of her free throws -- and six boards.
Sue Bird, coming off an expertly executed WNBA Finals, had been just a little bit bothered by one nagging thing in the month of September: her shooting percentage.
One could say it was of no consequence since she has another WNBA title and is now on a personal 13-game winning streak. But Bird notices all details, and her two huge game-winning shots in the postseason were not going to distract her from the general observation that she wasn't hitting at a percentage she'd prefer.
From the Western Conference finals through the first two games of the world championship -- Sept. 2 through Sept. 24 -- she was at 34.7 percent (25-of-72). For her WNBA career, Bird is at 42.7 percent in the regular season, 38.3 percent in the postseason. In this case, the devil is not in the details; Bird's overall contributions greatly eclipse any concern about percentages.
Still a 4-for-4 performance for nine points -- with three steals -- was a very sharp showing by Team USA's starting point guard.
Meanwhile, the two "young-'uns" from UConn -- Tina Charles and Maya Moore -- both played beyond their years, which we've come to expect. Moore had nine points and a team-best eight rebounds. Charles had 10 points, displaying some of her textbook power post moves that earned her WNBA rookie of the year honors.
Also of note: Angel McCoughtry, whose athleticism stands out even on this team, had nine points. She was part of perhaps the prettiest play of the game: taking a nifty bounce pass from Moore (she does it all, folks) on a baseline cut and flipping the ball over her head for a layup.
Elsewhere, Australia mostly rested star Lauren Jackson on Saturday; Australia in Group A and Russia in Group D also finished 3-0 in the first round. Some defensive issues will still need work for Group B leader Team USA, but it was another good outing.
Why, though, did we lead off with Catchings, whose numbers Saturday -- six points, two rebounds -- wouldn't jump off the page at you if you didn't see the game?
Because if you did see it, you know what a force of energy she was for her 22 minutes. One day, they might re-name the WNBA's defensive player of the year award in her honor, as she won it again this season. She was also a strong candidate for MVP, an award her fans fear she'll never get.
But even if she doesn't, Catchings' impact on games should never be underestimated. Virtually all the best players really do play very hard so it is a testament to Catchings that her "playing hard" is actually perceptibly a notch above most anyone else.
Her signature play Saturday? A couple of minutes into the third quarter, Team USA was leading by "only" eight points. Still a little nervous time for the favorites. Catchings saw a chance to poke away the ball for a teammate to steal. She dived for it, like a world-class volleyball player desperately trying to make a dig to save a match.
Bird was then able to get her hands on the ball and take it down the court for her trademark pull-up jumper. Catchings didn't get credit for a steal or an assist; like so many hustle/heart plays in her college career at Tennessee and then professionally with the Indiana Fever, Team USA and on various overseas squads, it's not something that is statistically recorded.
But if you were watching, you should keep it permanently recorded in your mind. Because that is Tamika Catchings.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
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