Win a good start for Team USA
Hindered by limited practice time, U.S. women still dismantle WNBA All-Stars 99-72
UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- If Saturday proved anything it's that Team USA isn't likely to have any trouble beating teams with less time to prepare than the Americans themselves.
If only the WNBA All-Stars weren't the only team in the world in such a predicament.
Playing the league's annual midseason all-star extravaganza as a contest between the United States national team and a best-of-the-rest WNBA All-Star team provided a game with slightly more intensity and no less entertainment than the typical run-and-gun affair between the conferences that usually marks the summer calendar.
As the 99-72 win for Team USA suggests, it did not provide a more competitive score than anything else of late in the Nutmeg State that involves coach Geno Auriemma.
The U.S. national team scored 29 points in the first quarter, led by 21 at halftime, 31 after three quarters and was ahead by such a comfortable margin in the waning seconds to allow for some typical Auriemma slapstick -- grinning as he pulled Tina Charles with less than two seconds to play after she launched back-to-back shots from near the 3-point line.
It was a good performance by the likely core of a team that will travel to the Czech Republic in September for the FIBA World Championship. It was a great performance if you consider the three days at the Mohegan Sun during the All-Star break represent the first time this particular collection of players had been on the same court together.
The national team shot 56 percent from the floor and limited the WNBA All-Stars to 37 percent shooting. It had more than twice as many assists as turnovers and forced its opponent to commit almost twice as many turnovers as it had assists. It produced moments of ruthlessly efficiency and of the sublime -- Tamika Catchings jumping a passing lane or Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter tic-tac-toe passing in transition.
"I thought the way we passed the ball and how smoothly our offense seemed to get generated [was impressive]," Auriemma said of a game in which Team USA registered assists on 32 of 42 field goals. "And it wasn't just one thing; it was baskets in transition, it was baskets inside, it was 3s. It was a little bit of everything."
That it was also a lot of some things from Sylvia Fowles might have been the day's most significant development. She was the leading scorer for the Americans in winning the gold in the 2008 Olympics, but she also had the security of playing with veteran internationals like Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson on that team. Now just 2½ seasons into her own pro career, Candace Parker's injury means Fowles is the senior stateswoman in the post alongside Charles and Candice Dupree.
I think, at minimum, if we had a month [to train together as a complete team], I think we would be virtually impossible to beat.” -- Sue Bird on how strong the U.S. women's national team could be
"We got two guys that really have never had to carry the load for the U.S. Olympic team," Auriemma said before the game of Fowles and Charles, the only true centers on the roster for the time being. "One is one year out of college; the other was a [Team USA] back-up. Now you're asking those two kids to go out and beat the best players in the world. Can they do it? Absolutely. Have they done it before? No. So it's a question mark."
Fowles offered an exclamation point on the court against Michelle Snow, Rebekkah Brunson and some other more-than-adequate post players. She scored on Team USA's first possession and never stopped on her way to 23 points, eight rebounds and an MVP award in just more than 16 minutes on the court.
"She's grown, but Sylvia can take it to another level," Swin Cash said. "I understand that in order for us to win world championships, in order for us to win in 2012 [in the London Olympics], I want her to dominate the world. I don't want there to be another post player in the conversation with what she can do on the low block, rebounding and offensively. And I think she has it in her."
But for all its attributes, Saturday's win wasn't without blemishes of the sort to remind everyone that nothing is guaranteed for the U.S. women when they leave the exhibition stage, a lesson they learned the hard way in the 2006 World Championship. Auriemma's team understandably looked much better organized and cohesive than the All-Stars on Saturday. It also looked like a team that hadn't spent a whole lot of time playing basketball together.
"I didn't like the fact that we gave up a lot of layups early on," Auriemma said as he ticked off the faults. "We fouled a lot. I don't think we rebounded the ball that great. Our transition defense wasn't that great. So all the things that come from spending a lot of time in practice, you know, we'll get that fixed. But today, more good than bad, for sure."
The U.S. national team struggled early to contain penetration, either from Lindsey Harding or Lindsay Whalen, and could count itself lucky that the All-Stars' collective finishing touch wasn't a little better on this day. When an all-star team playing without original selections Lauren Jackson, Becky Hammon and Sancho Lyttle finally took off the handcuffs of playing without Phoenix's Penny Taylor, an Australian mainstay, it proved even more competitive on the scoreboard.
Beyond the first unit of Taurasi, Catchings, Fowles, Bird and Pondexter, which showed the chemistry of a group that had played together in the past and played against each other for more than the blink of an eye professionally, missteps in areas like transition defense showed a young roster still getting acclimated.
"There's certain things that as a team you want to have a certain comfort level with," Bird said. "And to work on it in practice or to do it in games over and over, you get that comfort level. There were some things tonight where we just weren't used to each other. Getting back -- some people on some teams pick up the ball, some don't. There's different mentalities, and we just have to work on getting on the same page."
Of course, the catch is they need to find that page while speed reading. The WNBA regular season ends Aug. 22, and the complete team -- whatever the final roster looks like -- won't be able to convene until all its members are finished with the playoffs. At best, Team USA will have a couple of weeks to work.
How much time would it take for this collection of amazing talent to truly play to its peak potential?
"I think a month would be great," Bird said. "All right, if you want to play your absolute best, yeah, more time [than a month]. But I think, at minimum, if we had a month, I think we would be virtually impossible to beat."
But with so many players dependent on overseas leagues to augment their annual pay, we won't see that anytime soon.
"It's very difficult," Bird said. "I mean, you can get on a drawing board for days and you will never find the right time. If Russia's done on May 1, Turkey's not done until May 15. And if Turkey's done April 28, you know, Israel's not done until June."
Yet even as Auriemma noted that the problem in remaining a basketball superpower is less the United States regressing than the rest of the world progressing, he summed up the simple truth of success or failure when you wear the USA colors.
"We've got the best players," Auriemma said. "As long as we've got the players, then it's our job as USA Basketball to make sure we win."
It won't be as easy as Saturday was, but it wasn't a bad place to begin.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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