By Deena Shanker
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
U.S. women's basketball heads into the Aug. 11 final in London upholding the reputation of a national juggernaut and enjoying strong fan support. Ticket sales have been strong and viewers are up by more than 50 percent from Beijing in 2008.
Flags flying outside the basketball arena in London's Olympic Park.
Credit: The Department for Culture, Media and Sport on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)-- U.S. women's basketball came to London with a rock-solid record of winning its last 33 consecutive Olympics.
Now, with six Olympic 2012 wins under its belt, including its Tuesday defeat of Canada with a score of 91-48, the team is looking to hold onto its juggernaut status on Aug. 11 by beating the winner of the Aug. 9 match-up between Australia and China.
Australia is widely expected to be in the final game and to pose a formidable challenge. Its player Liz Cambage became the first woman to dunk at the Olympics on Aug. 3.
Nonetheless, U.S. hopes for a gold are running high.
Along with its leadership role, the U.S. team has been commanding strong press notice, including a profile of Seimone Augustus in the New York Times, and contending with possibly unreasonable performance pressure.
When the team's 81-56 victory on July 28 against Croatia was described as a "sloppy performance," it became clear that some expectations were not just for another top spot on the podium, but a near shutout.
For advocates of women's basketball, there are also hopes that this time, an Olympic win just might boost year-round interest in the WNBA, in its 16th year.
"The WNBA is very proud of the fact that all 12 members of the U.S. women's senior national team are WNBA players," WNBA President Laurel J. Richie told Women's eNews on Monday. "For them to represent our country on an international stage is terrific. Millions around the world will see them and have the opportunity to get to know them not only as great athletes, but as interesting and inspiring women."
In the lead up to the London games, on July 20, the team's star shooter, 30-year-old Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury, complained from Istanbul, Turkey, about the lack of attention paid to this group of high achievers. "We're a team that's won four gold medals in a row and yet we're still fighting for respect in our own country. I think it's a little sad."
But since then, ticket sales and viewership for the team's games have risen along with its successes.
The basketball venue has been filled at approximately 89 percent capacity for the women's games, according to the Associated Press, and each game has had an average of 1.5 million television viewers – a 52 percent jump from the Beijing games four years ago.
"It's been awesome to see every single game, the energy, not just that the place is filled, but there is a great appreciation for women's basketball," said U.S. assistant coach Doug Bruno in the Associated Press article.
Sue Bird, Team USA's point guard and already the proud winner of two Olympic gold medals, chalked up the team's first (relatively) substandard game against the Croatians on July 28 to "jitters." The team's coach, Geno Auriemma, in his fourth year leading the national American team, echoed that, saying "everybody was a little nervous."
The team was expected to play better in the next game against Angola on July 30. Facing
first-time Olympics contender Angola, the team widened its win with a predictably easy 90-38 victory.
Angola's coach Anibal Moreira said his team never really expected to win, they were just happy to play with the best team in the world. "We feel a lot of pride to be able to play against such a team, who are idols for our players," he said. "We hoped to get to 50 points but we didn't succeed."
Against Turkey on Aug. 1, the team won handily, 89-58.
Unlike some NBA teams, whose success has hinged on the talents of one or two players, coach Auriemma has emphasized the team's all-round strength. "What we lack in preparation time we make up for in the quality of our depth," Auriemma said.
That players don't mind sitting on the bench is a sign of the team's exceptional teamwork.
Angel McCoughtry, a 25-year-old player of the Atlanta Dream and 2009 WNBA Rookie of the Year, has called sitting on the bench "the best thing for my career," saying it helped her "gain discipline."
Team USA won its fourth Olympic game on Aug. 3 by beating the Czech Republic 88-61 with Taurasi scoring an impressive 18 points, including four three-point shots. After that game player Candace Parker said the team was hitting its stride. "I think we feel good," she said. "Obviously we're getting our team chemistry down and we're playing well."
On Sunday, Aug. 5, U.S. players beat the Chinese team by a commanding 114-66, with Taurasi scoring 22 points.
But even though Taurasi's standout status can't be denied, teamwork once again stood out against China as the team set a record with 33 assists leading to 52 baskets. "This team is so unselfish," player Tamika Catchings noted. "It becomes contagious."
Deena Shanker is a writer living in San Francisco.
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