After bitter loss, U.S. women regroup with great effort

Updated: September 24, 2006, 10:59 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

When the United States lost in the World Championship semifinal Thursday, I was reminded of two other recent times I've seen this happen to American women's teams. One was earlier this year at the Winter Olympics, when the United States was upset by Sweden in the hockey semis. The other was at the 2003 Women's World Cup, when Mia and the gang couldn't repeat the 1999 tour de force and fell to Germany in the semis.

Diana Taurasi
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty ImagesDiana Taurasi was fantastic Saturday, scoring 28 points in 16 minutes on 11-of-15 shooting, including 6-of-7 beyond the arc

The situations have their differences, of course. Soccer and hockey are considerably "younger" sports for women, especially on the international-competition level, than basketball.

And both the American soccer and hockey teams had players with more experience in disappointment than the basketball team did when it fell Thursday.

The soccer team had lost in the 1995 World Cup final and the 2000 Olympic gold-medal game, both to Norway. The hockey team lost the Olympic final to archrival Canada in the 2002 Salt Lake Games. Plus, the Canadians had won the first eight worlds, beating the Americans in the final each time, before Team USA broke through against them in 2005.

For both soccer and hockey, there was a core group of players who had long enough careers that they were big parts of both the biggest highs and the less-than-gold down times of their respective programs.

Meanwhile, there was only one player on this 2006 U.S. basketball worlds team who was also with the American squad in its last major international loss before Thursday. That was Sheryl Swoopes, who was a year out of Texas Tech when Team USA fell to Brazil in the 1994 world semifinals. One other person who played on that 1994 team was also in Brazil: USA assistant coach Dawn Staley.

So, as I said, the three situations were not exactly alike. The soccer loss to Germany really wasn't an upset; the Germans were the best team in that tournament and went on to win the World Cup. The hockey loss was a shocker, even a bit more so than in basketball. But here's something they all had in common: when faced with an "unwanted" bronze-medal game that could have brought out the sluggish worst in any of those teams, they instead gave their best.

The soccer team beat Canada 3-1 in 2003. The hockey team downed Finland 4-0 in Torino. And the hoops squad unloaded Saturday on host-nation Brazil, 99-59.

All three cases were examples of a team picking itself out of the dumps, knowing it wasn't going to get what it wanted, but could at least get something. And in sports, how you respond to a big loss says as much about you as what kind of winner you are.

After the Americans lost Thursday, everyone who saw the game had a theory or two on what went wrong for Team USA. But at that point, the opinions that mattered were those of the U.S. players themselves. They knew they hadn't played to their ability. They understood that there are no "do overs" in these events in the medal round. You slip up at the wrong time, and you pay the price.

"We knew the Russia game was a difficult game where we were out of sorts and out of rhythm from the get-go," Diana Taurasi said. "I guess you could chalk it up to being one of those nights."

Usually, athletes really can't fully explain "one of those nights." There is always a combination of factors, and it's hard to say how each of them kind of domino into another. Would one made basket or one big stop Thursday have changed the tide? Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know. But …

"We weren't going to leave it to chance again," Taurasi said. "Everyone in the locker room was ready to go, knowing how tough this game was going to be. We lost a little bit of our pride the other night so we had to get it back."

Taurasi scored 28 points for the Americans in 16 minutes on the court. She made 11-of-15 shots, including 6-of-7 beyond the arc. She was just fantastic. Tina Thompson had 15 points. Tamika Catchings had 11 points and nine rebounds. And Catchings really looked like her usual self on court -- meaning she was all over the place, making things happen, which was not the case against Russia.

Candace Parker had 10 points and six rebounds, and now returns to Knoxville, Tenn., where full practice with coach Pat Summitt's crew will start in less than a month. Thompson said of Parker, chuckling, "NCAA basketball better watch out: Candace is coming back even better."

The Americans shot 55.7 percent from the floor overall, 55 percent from 3-point range, and each U.S. player scored. They outrebounded the Brazilians by 14 and limited them to 37.3 percent shooting. And the United States had its best game turnover-wise, with just 11, since the opener against China (eight).

Admittedly, if you're an American with even an ounce of empathy, it was uncomfortable seeing the Brazilians get schooled so badly in their own country. And it was sad watching how upset longtime national team star Janeth Arcain was afterward. However, it really was about what was expected. It's the character of this U.S. program to respond this way: to play their best after "one of those nights" when -- for the first time in so long -- they had played about their worst.

It has been my experience in covering women's sports that American teams do grasp that when they lose, in some greater sense it might benefit global women's sports. Bottom line: There is cachet in beating the USA. Whether it was Julie Foudy or Angela Ruggiero or Taurasi trying to "put things in perspective" after a tough loss, that understanding was very evident.

Americans realize they are extremely fortunate, both as athletes and as women. They live in a country where now, in 2006, girls have far, far fewer obstacles to overcome in terms of sports participation than do their peers in many other nations. Every player on this U.S. basketball team received a college scholarship for her athletic ability and all but the youngster Parker is earning a living playing sports professionally. She'll do the same as soon as she finishes at Tennessee.

They are all accustomed to good facilities, good equipment, good travel, good nutrition, good lodging. All of them know they wouldn't have to travel very far away from Ibirapuera Arena in Sao Paulo to find women their age who are used to nothing but crushing poverty.

So the loss of a chance for the gold medal is obviously nowhere close to the end of the world. They know that. It hurt Thursday. It still stung Friday. And the trip home from Brazil might be less than zany fun, but it will be a reflective time to think about what they learned.

Plus they bring back items they didn't have when they arrived: Bronze medals.

Those really do mean something.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.