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Friday, October 1, 2010
Even in rout, Team USA is relentless

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPN.com

All that today's American women's players know of putting on a USA jersey is this: They're supposed to win. Not that they will win, or that the process will be easy. Just that it's expected. Heck, it's practically required.

But there was a time, before these players were born, when the United States wasn't a favorite in international women's basketball. In the four world championships from 1964-75, in fact, the Americans didn't even win a medal. Once, they actually finished last.

The Americans had won the first two world championships, in 1953 and '57. But even then, and throughout the 1960s and into the '70s, it's impossible to guess how many potentially talented female athletes in the United States didn't play basketball competitively or at all.

Lindsay Whalen
Lindsay Whalen and the U.S. women play the winner of France-Spain in the semifinals.

Times changed. The women's college game developed in the United States. In 1979 -- the year Tamika Catchings, the oldest of the current Team USA players, was born -- the United States won the world championship again. The Americans have won four of the seven world titles since then; they won silver in 1983 and bronze in 1994 and 2006.

And now they're 7-0 and into the semifinals of this year's FIBA World Championship in the Czech Republic, having dominated South Korea, 106-44, as expected in Friday's quarterfinals.

As expected. Of course, the Americans came into this event knowing they were the big favorites to win the title. And yet, as they compete, they can't really think that way.

"You have to prepare like you're the underdog," Diana Taurasi said in a teleconference, along with Sue Bird and Catchings, on Thursday prior to the medal round. "The minute you think you can't be beat, that's when they come up from behind and get you."

This is the thought process of a player who has won three NCAA titles, two WNBA championships, four Euroleague crowns, two Olympic gold medals and … one world championship bronze.

That last one is the "coming up from behind you" thing that Taurasi was talking about. Russia went 5-4 in the 2006 world championship, but one of those victories came in the semifinals against the United States. No matter that the Americans went 8-1 in that tournament; the timing of the loss was everything. It bumped the United States to the bronze-medal matchup.

Friday, it was the Russians who were ambushed; the previously undefeated squad lost 70-53 to Belarus, which is competing in the world championship for the first time. The Russians were ranked No. 2 in the world coming into this event.

We wanted to build some momentum. You don't want to come out and be sluggish and play poorly and then go into the semifinal game feeling like you're questioning some things you're doing. … So I thought we accomplished an awful lot. We saw some different combinations out there that I wanted to see. We took advantage of the time we were together.

-- U.S. coach Geno Auriemma on Friday's victory

"I know there is a lot of history between those two countries, so the emotions were going to be pretty high," Team USA coach Geno Auriemma said by phone Friday. "I've never seen a group of kids any happier than the Belarus kids were when they won. They're big, talented, and they play exceptionally well together. But I think it was a surprise how easily they won the game. I don't think anyone came in thinking that Belarus was going to get up by 20 on the Russian national team."

The game that followed, USA versus South Korea, had no realistic chance of being an upset. The United States had far too big an advantage. Angel McCoughtry scored a team-best 17 points, while Candice Dupree had 12 points and 16 rebounds. Maya Moore had 15 points, Swin Cash 11 and Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles 10 each.

Yet, the Americans didn't just win, they made sure the door never opened even a crack for the South Koreans. They shot 57.1 percent from the field, had a 59-16 rebounding edge and were called for just five fouls the entire game.

"Coach stresses that if you lose focus, you don't get better," McCoughtry said by phone. "Even when you're beating a team by a lot, you want to improve with each possession because we're trying to get better for the next game."

Indeed, Auriemma wanted this game to be a good jumping off point for the semifinals, not some sloppy effort that the United States won just because it had such a surplus of talent.

"We wanted to build some momentum. You don't want to come out and be sluggish and play poorly and then go into the semifinal game feeling like you're questioning some things you're doing," Auriemma said. "You're looking for how sharp we are, and whether we're doing things that will work regardless of what team we're playing.

"So I thought we accomplished an awful lot. We saw some different combinations out there that I wanted to see. We took advantage of the time we were together."

And, as Taurasi said, the Americans always must take the mindset that everybody is coming after them, and that one little slip here or there could cost them. Now, in reality, the Americans are good enough that they do usually have at least some margin for error. However, they keep that out of their minds.

And several of the American players have had plenty of experience with that. Catchings, Taurasi, Bird, Cash, Asjha Jones, Charles and Moore all have played for college teams that had unbeaten seasons. Thus, they usually had to internally motivate themselves, since they didn't face many challenges from the opposition.

"Our upbringing has really helped prepare us for when we do play for USA Basketball," Bird said. "Probably all of our careers, and all of our lives, a lot has been expected of us in terms of winning. It is hard to always have that bull's-eye on your back, but we have that experience and we know -- well, I hope we know -- that it just makes you raise the level of your play that much higher.

"It causes you to stay on your toes and constantly be ready. Hopefully the experience we've had throughout our careers has helped prepare us for these moments we're faced with now."

Catchings, Taurasi and Bird are the team's captains. Bird has a similar amount of high-class team hardware as her former UConn teammate Taurasi; she has two NCAA titles, two WNBA titles, four from Euroleague, two Olympic golds and a world championship gold (2002) and bronze.

Catchings won one NCAA title at Tennessee, and also has two Olympic golds, plus a gold and a bronze from the world championship. She hasn't won a WNBA title yet -- "I will get it one of these days," she said -- but she, Bird and Taurasi are all cut from the same competitive cloth.

"When you put the USA uniform on, the expectations become a lot higher," Catchings said. "You are expected to win gold -- whether you're on the junior team, the senior team, whichever team you're on. For the three of us being on the senior team and learning from the vets that used to be there … now we are the vets leading the way for the younger generation."

One thing most of the American players don't have much experience with is being real underdogs, and certainly not when they're competing for the national team. But that hasn't given them false confidence. They've found a good balance between believing in themselves but also being vigilant about all their competitors.

"I never feel like the 'overdog,'" Taurasi said. "You just gotta keep barkin.'"

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.