The U.S. Senior Women’s National Team traveled to Chile with one goal: Winning the FIBA Americas Championship and qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Mission accomplished.
In a rematch with a Cuban team that led much of the second half of an eventual 85-79 U.S. victory in Wednesday’s FIBA Americas opener, the U.S. Women demonstrated their improvement over the course of the tournament. That was evident from the opening tip, as the U.S. opened the game with a 16-0 run and never looked back in a 101-71 victory.
“Cuba came out and we jumped on them right away,” said Storm and U.S. Head Coach Anne Donovan. “I thought we stayed focused throughout the game with our bench. It was a really great effort throughout this tournament, five games in five days. We started with the best team in the tournament, we finished with the best team in the tournament. We could see Cuba start to wear down throughout this tournament and that’s where our depth and our bench comes into play.”
The depth of the roster allowed Donovan to use a 10-player rotation; 11 of the team’s 12 players scored, with only Cappie Pondexter failing to scratch. Tina Thompson’s 18 points led the U.S., while Diana Taurasi posted a double-double (15 points, 12 rebounds). Katie Smith also scored 15 points and Kara Lawson added 14 off the bench.
Storm guard Sue Bird led the team from the point. In 20 minutes, she made both of her shot attempts and did not commit a turnover, scoring five points and handing out three assists.
“I think today’s game was the sum of everything that we’ve been working on,” said Bird. “Everybody coming together, playing the way we can, being comfortable, being confident.”
While winning was the goal, the tournament also provided the U.S. valuable experience as a team leading up to next summer’s Olympics. That will continue later this fall with an exhibition tour in the U.S. against several major college teams.
“If we could take this team, this effort that we’ve made, this progress that we’ve made in these three or four weeks, if we could pick up where we leave off, this team will be in great shape come Beijing,” said Donovan. “I really can’t say enough about where we are defensively and where our focus is, our energy and concentration. We have great offensive powers. But it’s the other end of the floor that we’ve figured out. As long as we don’t take any steps backwards and every time we get together for a training camp we move forward, we’re going to be in good shape.”
While Bird and Donovan secured gold medals, Iziane Castro Marques and Brazil claimed bronze. Brazil rebounded from a loss to Cuba in the semifinals by crushing Argentina in the third-place game, 73-41. Castro Marques had a quiet game, scoring eight of her 10 points from the free-throw line and shooting 1-of-6 from the field.
Brazil will attempt to qualify for the Olympics in the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament, which will be held next June 9-15. Castro Marques has said she will represent her team in that tournament, which would take her away from the WNBA season.
Despite her off night, Castro Marques finished as the tournament’s second-leading scorer at 18.0 points per game. The leader? Long-time Storm center Simone Edwards, who averaged 18.8 points. Bird’s 4.0 assists per game ranked her second behind teammate Pondexter (4.8).
One last Olympics note: New Zealand took advantage of Australia’s automatic berth to qualify for Oceania’s spot in Beijing despite losing to the Lauren Jackson-less Opals 87-46 on Saturday. There’s a local aspect to the story, as incoming Washington freshman Jessica McCormack is headed to the Olympics. McCormack played 35 minutes against Australia, posting six rebounds and seven boards for the Tall Ferns.