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U.S. soars above the rest

Women's basketball team dominates in early games, as players stay focused more on gold than legacy.

August 14, 2008|K.C. Johnson | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- In lieu of actual competition, the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team's dominance is creating math assignments.

Over three straight victories in preliminary play, including Wednesday night's 97-41 blowout of Mali, Team USA is enjoying an average margin of victory of 47 points.

Through three games of its gold-medal march in 2004 at the Athens Olympics, Team USA's margin of victory stood at 31.3 points and eventually dropped to 23.8 points over eight games.

Does this matter? Is doubled-up dominance important?

Such questions are immeasurably more pertinent than, say, who the backup guard on Mali is. The point is: Team USA is really its only competition at these Games in that if they don't beat themselves, gold will find its way around the players' necks for the fourth straight time.

And the players know it.

"We're our own worst enemy," Cappie Pondexter said. "We just have to focus on ourselves."

Many observers consider the 1996 women's team the greatest of all time, the one that steamrollered to the gold medal at the Atlanta Games by winning all 60 games in pre-Olympic and Olympic competition.

Lisa Leslie averaged 19.5 points to lead that team in scoring, but had zero interest in discussing whether leaving a similar legacy is important to this squad.

"Ask me after the gold-medal game," Leslie said. "Otherwise it means nothing."

Guard Sue Bird offered similar focus but cracked a window into how the coaching staff prepared this team by bringing up the very subject of history.

"I think it's important," Bird said. "It's something we talked about right before our first game. We had a team meeting and they put together a little highlight video for us and posed the question: 'What is your legacy going to be?' But it's not necessarily something we talk about every day.

"The only way you can have a legacy is to win gold. And the only way to win gold is to focus on the task at hand."

That Team USA is maintaining that focus while drubbing teams such as Mali suggests players are listening to coaches.

"If you start thinking about other things, you can lose your mind a little bit," Bird said. "The good thing about this team is that nobody is doing that."

Next up for Team USA is a Friday matchup with Spain, ranked fifth worldwide by FIBA, the sport's governing body. Spain is 2-1 thus far in preliminary play and features former WNBA players Amaya Valdemoro and Anna Montanana.

"They're very athletic," Tina Thompson said. "They're a shooting team [that] likes to run. So we definitely have to defend well."

This team's legacy depends on it.

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