RIO DE JANEIRO – With a 101-72 victory over Spain in the championship game of the Rio Olympics on Saturday, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings each won a fourth gold medal.
Bird is the only one of the three who has contemplated returning for a chance at a fifth. The face of USA women’s basketball will change by the time the team tries to win a seventh consecutive gold medal in Tokyo in 2020.
They began playing together in Athens in 2004, and learned under the previous generation of stars that the Olympics are about more than statistics and showmanship.
“We knew what we were there for, to see how the team should work,” Bird said. “We were really lucky to have the older players, the veteran players, show us with their play and their words how this team should work.
“These were Hall of Fame players who did not care about points or rebounds or any stats. We learned from that. Hopefully we’ve done them proud.”
The U.S. women are one of the most dominant teams in the modern history of sports. They have won 49 consecutive games and six Olympic golds in a row. They did not play a fourth quarter in Rio in which the outcome was in doubt.
Spain’s aggressive defense and quick-release shooting led to a 17-14 lead in the first quarter. The U.S. would outscore Spain 35-14 the rest of the half.
Bird was playing despite a sore knee that caused her to miss the semifinal game. Her backup, Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen, spent most of the first quarter on the bench, analyzing the game.
“It was one of those games where they’re pressuring you and making you do back cuts,” Whalen said. “They didn’t let us do anything easy. It was one of those games where our sync came into play.”
Whalen and fellow Lynx star Maya Moore began finding each other on cuts to the basket and the rout was on.
“I was kind of watching the first five or six minutes,” Whalen said. “That’s one of my jobs anyway on this team. I knew if I could come in and get into the lane, things would open up and collapse their defense. I think Maya felt the same way.”
Whalen and Taurasi finished with a team-high 17 points each. Whalen and Moore finished with a team-high six assists each. They made the game look easy, just as they were taught.
“It’s a little different when you’re on this team,” Moore said. “It’s almost weird because you have pressure, you have this job and you want to do it well, but you also have confidence because you’re surrounded by such greatness.
“It’s this weird balance of preparing yourself but realizing, ‘This is fun.’ You can’t go wrong if you just play.”
USA coach Geno Auriemma said the U.S. dominates because of USA Basketball’s organization, resources and wealth, and also because women are able to play college basketball.
“The United States is a great place to be if you want to play basketball,” she said. “Because we have the resources, the culture is already built, because of the shoulders that we stand on.”
The shoulders of Bird, Taurasi and Catchings will have to be wide enough to wear four Olympic golds.