LAS VEGAS — After two consecutive exhibition losses, the U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team will go into Sunday’s game against Nigeria (5:30 p.m. ET) with a greater sense of urgency than an exhibition usually would provoke.
“We want to make sure we come out and have a feel-good game going on this long flight,” USA guard Jewell Loyd said of the upcoming trip to Tokyo.
This week is the first time since a 2011 exhibition tour in Europe that the U.S. women’s national team has lost back-to-back games. The Americans haven’t lost three consecutive games since 1998 in the Australian Goldmark Cup, with all of those defeats coming to Australia.
In the two major competitions, the Olympics and the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, the Americans have lost just once since winning the 1996 Atlanta Games. That came in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Cup, after which they won the bronze medal game.
“We’re not used to being in a position of having to defend losing,” U.S. coach Dawn Staley said. “This preparation is great for us. It’s putting us back on our heels and in position to figure some stuff out quickly. You lose two, it shakes you up. This is foreign to them. We do feel a little bit of pressure.”
That said, Staley said in the big picture, she’s not especially concerned after the Americans’ 93-85 loss to Team WNBA in the All-Star Game on Wednesday and the 70-67 loss to Team Australia on Friday. There were troubling issues in both games, offensively and defensively. But considering this team has been together less than a week and four-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi hasn’t played yet, Staley said she sees improvements every time the Americans are on court together in games and practice.
In particular, the six players making their Olympic debuts are figuring out their roles. Washington guard Ariel Atkins, who turns 25 on July 30 when the Americans face Japan in their second game of Group B play, was asked about being one of the top perimeter defenders in the world.
“I know that’s something I can bring to this team. I love playing defense; it’s honestly my favorite part of the game,” Atkins said. “But I’m going to learn how to adjust to the FIBA rules. In the WNBA, they reward you for being an aggressive defender. Not so much in FIBA. So just learning how to balance that and getting better at it is really going to help me play defense on an international level.”
Seattle’s Loyd, a two-time WNBA champion at age 27, is also getting the hang of being on her first Olympic team.
“Diana after practice today took me aside and we got shots up. And she told me to stay aggressive,” Loyd said. “Hearing that from her — obviously we’re friends, but also knowing that she’s leaning on me a little bit to step up, it’s good to know. Because sometimes you come into situations where you’re not sure, and you’re like, ‘I’ll just do what I’m told.’
“But I think kind of where we are with this team is, ‘Yeah, I’m a first-timer, but I’m also pretty experienced, so just try to do my job.'”
Phoenix guard Taurasi, 39, competed in her first Olympics in 2004, when Staley was playing in her last Summer Games. Taurasi has been out since the Mercury’s game July 3 because of a hip injury, but she’s doing what she can to aid this group until she gets back on the court.
“It’s frustrating; you obviously want to be out there to help,” Taurasi said. “When you’ve been on the team a long time, there’s certain things that you know help the process along. The reality is, it’s the first time for a lot of these guys, and sometimes you gotta go through the fire.
“These two games are a little bit of reality of how it’s not an easy path. It never is, and it never will be. You go through these bumps and bruises. Unfortunately, we’ve had two games where we didn’t get the result we wanted. But I think there was growth there. This group is still really confident. We still know it’s going to be difficult, and we have to embrace that.”