LONDON – When it was over – finally, mercifully, exhaustively – they laughed, shrugged, danced, hugged and celebrated for a solid hour, as if they had won.
Which in a sense, the French did.
They only lost by 36 points.
The same U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team that beat France 86-50 for the gold medal Saturday night beat Canada earlier in the tournament by 43, China by 48 and Angola by 52.
“I think it speaks directly to what we’ve got going on in our country in women’s basketball and in women’s sports in general,” U.S. point guard Sue Bird said. “We wear teams down, bottom line. We come at them in waves and when they sub and we sub, it’s a huge difference.”
If U.S.-France was the only game of the tournament you watched, congratulations. The only better use of your time would have been tuning into the United States’ 86-73 semifinal win over Australia – the toughest anyone has played the Americans in the last two Olympics and the only time they trailed at halftime during the last three.
U.S.-Australia is the closest thing to a rivalry in the women’s game, and even so, the Americans have won all seven meetings at the Olympics. That means the only real rivalry is when the U.S. team plays an intrasquad game. Seimone Augustus wasn’t afraid to acknowledge as much even before she and her teammates hit the road to the Summer Games.
“The practices are definitely harder. Just look at the competition that we face,” she said. “The best players in the WNBA going at each other every day. You can’t get better than that.
“I’m not saying the game is easy. But if I’ve got to face Diana Taurasi,” she said. “I’m not going to see another Diana Taurasi in Europe or France or Spain. It’s pretty tough.”
A similar situation exists in women’s hockey, except that it’s dominated by two teams, Canada and the United States, instead of one. Even so, near the end of the 2010 Vancouver Games, International Olympic Committee head Jacques Rogge gave the rest of the world eight years to close the gap or face losing their place in the Olympic program. Basketball hasn’t been similarly threatened – yet.
But the U.S. women got a headstart on their counterparts with the passage of Title IX in 1972, which mandated funding for women’s sports programs across the board. As a result, the hoopsters today enjoy a big advantage in just about every important category – participation numbers, coaching, facilities, training, sponsors – and thanks to the stewardship of USA Basketball, it’s being passed on from each crop of players to the next.
“We start at a young age. The players give back,” said Candace Parker, who scored a game-high 21 points, including eight straight during a second-quarter run that proved the decisive stretch in the game. “You have players coming back for a third Olympics to show the younger players what it takes to win a gold medal.
“I learned a lot from Tina Thompson, Lisa Leslie, Katie Smith and now Dee (Diana Taurasi), Tamika (Catchings), Sue (Bird). It’s just the passing down of what it takes to win.”
It’s all those things, and at least one more – the tough practices that U.S. coach Geno Auriemma runs at Connecticut, where he’s built a women’s college basketball dynasty, plus the ones that his rival, just-retired coach Pat Summit, used to run at Tennessee. That’s one reason the pipeline of poised, disciplined talent stocking the U.S. program never seems to run dry.
“When you talk about the score, or the level of competition, it’s really more that we just want to play well, whether there’s five people out there (watching) or no one. We want it to look sharp. We want it to look crisp and that’s a challenge,” said guard Maya Moore, who played for Auriemma at UConn.
“You never want to walk off the court feeling like, ‘I could have tried harder,’ whether it’s practice or a game. You always want to try hard, so Coach is going to do whatever he has to make practice the level of,” Moore paused, searching for the right word, “ ‘Whew.’ That’s why he’s the greatest.”
You won’t hear Auriemma say as much, let alone that the rest of world will be even further behind by the time the Olympic tournament tips off four years from now. Instead, he was already trying to sell tickets for the 2016 Rio Games.
“If you took out our team and Angola, you’d have a hard time separating the other 10. That’s a heck of a tournament,” he said. “I’ve been impressed by the level of play.”
If so, he might be the only one. The French had only one player, Sandrine Gruda, who played in the WNBA; every one of the Americans still do. That’s why losing by 36 points felt like a victory, if only a moral one.
“We’re so proud to be here. I’m so happy. It’s amazing. It’s heavy. It’s wonderful. It’s huge. It’s a dream,” said scrappy point guard Celine Dumerc, probably the only French player good enough to even ride the U.S. bench.
“We’re here,” she added, “and that’s the best.”
Make that second-best – and by a mile.