After the obligatory tight opening quarter, during which an overmatched South Korean team played harder than it ever had before, the U.S. women had long since blown their quarterfinal basketball game wide open.
With just three minutes left, Delisha Milton-Jones hit a free throw to make the score 94-54. I glanced at the scoreboard to see how many points Milton-Jones had, but what grabbed my attention was that the Americans had gotten to 94 points with just two players in double figures — Lisa Leslie with 10 and Sylvia Fowles with 24.
It’s not easy to score 94 points with just two players in double digits and nobody even close to 30. To do it, you’ve got to have incredible depth, and this team has just that.
“We’re 12-deep,” said wing Katie Smith, who contributed two points along with three assists, four rebounds and a steal. “We have 12 players ready to step on the court.”
On Tuesday, every one of the 12 players not only scored at least two points, they all had at least one rebound. Eight had at least one assist, the same number that had at least one steal. Nine of them drew at least one foul. They weren’t garbage-time stats, because every woman played at least 10 minutes, their time divided between both halves.
“It sounds corny, but you’re only as strong as your weakest link,” added guard Diana Taurasi, whose nickname should be "Scrap Iron" for the way she plays. “We’re 12-strong.”
So far, the team’s depth hasn’t been crucial to advancing undefeated to the semifinals. But come Thursday, the Americans are going to need all of that depth if they hope to settle a score with the Russians, who in the 2006 World Championships in Brazil ended a United States streak of world and Olympic crowns dating to 1994.
The United States women ended up third that year, and the pain of their first meaningful loss in 12 years has stayed with them since. The Russians blew a tight game against Spain in the fourth quarter of their game Tuesday night and come in bolstered by Becky Hammon, an American WNBA star who joined the Russian Olympic team when she felt she was being passed over by her own country.
About half of the current team was in Brazil for that 2006 wakeup call. Sue Bird was one of them and, she said, “We learned a lot from that loss. We’re not going to take anything for granted.”
She said team members were hurt and angry at themselves for losing to Russia, and she’ll never forget how much delight the crowd took in seeing the mighty Americans lose after 12 years during which they were right up there with the U.S. softball team as one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
“When you wear that USA jersey, a lot is expected,” Bird said.
That was another realization she had in the wake of that loss, and she said that in retrospect, that was a good thing.
“Sometimes losses turn out to be the biggest wins,” she said, putting a spin on the story that works in sports and in life.
That’s why she and each of the team's 12 players aren’t taking anything for granted this time around. If they’ve been blowing out their opponents in the preliminaries, it’s more because of how hard they're playing from opening tip to final horn than because they’ve got the opposition outclassed. Tuesday night, they built a lead of more than 40 points early in the fourth quarter, then got a little sloppy for a couple of minutes and let the Koreans close the gap to 34. On the court, the women barked at each other to tighten up, angry with themselves for letting up. The final score of 104-60 was a reflection of their redoubled efforts.
They never stop pressing from one end of the court to the other, as coach Anne Donovan keeps rotating in fresh guards to keep lively legs on the court. In the middle, Leslie, one of the all-time greats, still starts, but she’s in her mid-30s and not as fast as she used to be. On Tuesday, with Leslie in foul trouble, Fowles stepped in to register a double-double, finishing with 26 points and 14 rebounds.
If they get past Russia, the women will probably play archrival Australia for the gold, but no one’s looking that far ahead. They tried that in 2006 and got burned — badly.
And now they’re 12 for one and one for their country, a team on a mission that, to them, is every bit as big as the mission the men’s team is on to redeem itself and its country’s honor.
“That’s why this team deserves to win a gold medal,” said Donovan, addressing the depth on her bench. “It’s the most unselfish team I’ve ever been a part of.”