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Sunday, October 3, 2010
U.S. women win gold medal

By Mechelle Voepel
ESPN.com

Tamika Catchings and coach Geno Auriemma were chatting during a shootaround this weekend at the FIBA World Championship for Women about what made this particular United States squad as good as it was.

"We talked about how this team gets along really well, on and off the court," Catchings said. "And how there's not a single player who has to be catered to. We have the older generation and the younger generation, and it's been a great mix.

Swin Cash and Tamika Catchings
With Sunday's victory, Swin Cash, left, and Diana Taurasi became the fifth and sixth players to win an NCAA, WNBA, Olympic and world championship.

"Being able to have that comfort with one another has been really neat."

It wasn't that Catchings didn't have similar feelings of unity on the many past USA Basketball teams on which she has participated. But each experience playing for her country has its own special set of circumstances and memories for Catchings.

And as the oldest of the American players who celebrated a gold medal Sunday, Catchings can truly put in perspective what it takes for a diverse group to come together so quickly.

"Everybody who was here knew what we were here for, including our families," Catchings said. "When we had a little time to hang out, walk around and spend quality time with each other and people here to see us, that was fine. But when it was time for business, we do what we need to do."

The Americans won the world championship for the eighth time Sunday, a bounce back from a surprising bump to bronze in 2006. This time, the Americans finished the final test before a loud, enthusiastic and hopeful crowd in the Czech Republic, cheering on its home team that previously had eliminated Australia and Belarus in the medal round.

A game that was close at halftime didn't stay that way, as the Americans' powerful third quarter gave them all the edge they'd need in what ended as an 89-69 victory. Over the course of 11 days, Team USA went 9-0 and played some really breathtaking basketball in stretches of every game. There were no contests that were lackadaisical or sloppy, even when Team USA had insurmountable leads. Only Australia in the second round came within single digits of the U.S. squad, losing by eight.

It was as if the Americans were giving nine performances on stage, and tried to make each and every one as good as possible.

Sunday, the Czech Republic lost one of its standouts, Jana Vesela, who was injured at the start of the game. She didn't return, but the Czech team still trailed just 40-35 at the break. Outscoring the Czechs 34-17 in the third period, though, the Americans essentially put the game away.

Afterward, Auriemma praised the Czech Republic team and its preparation, but much credit should go to him, too. Throughout the nine games, Auriemma pushed the right buttons in terms of playing time and combinations. And the American team responded to him after halftime of the final, ratcheting up and extending the defense, which paid off on both ends.

Tamika Catchings
One of Team USA's tri-captains, Tamika Catchings won her second world championship.

Sunday's game was a microcosm of Team USA in this tournament: As Catchings said, it was a mix of stars a decade apart, from ages 31 to 21.

Angel McCoughtry, the 2009 WNBA Rookie of the Year who got her Atlanta Dream to the league finals in her second season, led the Americans in the gold-medal game with 18 points. McCoughtry just turned 24 earlier this month, and even this early in her career, it's not too soon to say she has all the tools to become a Hall of Fame type player. She averaged 11.3 points and had the second-most steals in the tournament (24) behind the Czech Republic's Hana Horakova (26).

Then there's this season's top WNBA rookie, Tina Charles, who doesn't turn 22 until December. Entering the world championship, there were reasonable questions about the American interior game because of retirement, age and injury. Yet the Americans won the rebounding battle every game, sometimes by enormous margins.

Charles was among the keys to that; Sunday she had 13 points and a team-best 10 rebounds. For the tournament, she averaged 10.7 and 4.8.

Point guard Sue Bird, the definition of a money player, had 11 points, 3 assists, 5 steals and -- no surprise -- not a single turnover. One of the latest to join the U.S. team because she was busy winning the WNBA title with Seattle, Bird did what she does best.

"There isn't a better point guard than Sue, for a lot of different reasons," Auriemma said. "Because of how smart she is, how perceptive, what a great teammate she is. She's a leader, and you can count on her. She makes big shots at big times. She inspires her teammates to be better in subtle ways. When she's running your team, you don't have a lot to worry about."

Catchings, who had nine points Sunday, averaged 8.8 for the tournament. And, like Bird, she won her second world championship gold. They were the two youngsters on the 2002 squad; current Team USA assistant coach Jennifer Gillom was a veteran player on that team.

Candice Dupree had a quiet game Sunday, but was very good throughout the tournament, averaging 9.2 points and 6.0 rebounds. Same goes for Swin Cash (8.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg), who gave the Americans the same kind of energy infusion she did for Seattle in its run to the WNBA championship.

Sylvia Fowles, who played in this world championship after surgery at the start of September to repair the meniscus in her left knee, was not at 100 percent -- and yet also was a critical presence for the Americans inside (8.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg).

Team USA
Angel McCoughtry and Sylvia Fowles helped the U.S. women win all nine games in the Czech Republic.

The lone American who had homework to do during the tournament -- UConn senior Maya Moore -- used this tournament as a basketball classroom, learning against the best both in games and in practices.

Just as Candace Parker benefited from her world championship experience in 2006 while she was still at Tennessee, Moore (8.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg) will have an even more multifaceted game to unleash on the college world this season.

Speaking of Parker, the shoulder surgery that ended her WNBA season early kept her from the world championship. If she's healthy, though, she's expected to be part of the 2012 Olympic team.

How many of the 12 Americans who won gold will be on the squad for the London Games in two years? Realistically, it pretty likely won't be all of them. As mentioned, it's nearly impossible to conceive of a healthy Parker not being on the roster. And there are other players in the WNBA, plus some still in college, who are expected to push for Olympic spots.

There will be lots of time to debate all that. But this title -- which did take on added importance because of the Americans' loss in 2006 -- belongs to these 12 players. Although all of them would no doubt give a nod of gratitude to the large pool of U.S. talent that really forces the best players to live up to being the best. This is very tough team to make.

Oh, and you think we've forgotten to give a special mention to one of very best? Nah, we wouldn't do that. The tournament scoring leader for Team USA was Diana Taurasi, who had wanted to lead Phoenix to a repeat of the Mercury's 2009 WNBA title, but kept running headlong into the Storm.

Seattle defeated Phoenix all seven times they met this season, including a 2-0 sweep in the Western Conference finals. So this tournament was sort of a chance for Taurasi to put a different spin on the way this summer/early fall ended.

Sunday, she had 16 points, finishing this event averaging a team-best 12.0 per game. She was selected as one of the top five players in the tournament, and earned the only major title she'd yet to win in her amazing career: a world championship.

At age 28, Taurasi really is at her peak; she was the WNBA's top scorer for the fourth time this summer, plus was once again on the all-league first team. That things didn't go as well as she hoped for the Mercury just fueled Taurasi's fire even more for the world championship.

"It was a frustrating summer in Phoenix," Taurasi said. "But I always say things happen for a reason. It was nice to have this experience. We have a great group together, and we really made the best out of it.

"A lot of people had long grueling seasons, and we put all that aside to represent our country, which we've all been doing for a long time. It's a great honor."

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