New faces, new pressure for U.S. women at World Cup


There aren't too many things that produce a grimace from Sue Bird or Diana Taurasi quite like mention of the 2006 FIBA Women's World Cup. Variety is overrated when it comes to U.S. senior national team competition. They could do without that lone bronze breaking up all their golds.
But that experience they had a dozen years ago is one of the many things they can pass on to the newbies -- such as 2018 WNBA rookie of the year A'ja Wilson -- who'll join them this year at the FIBA World Cup (formerly known as the world championship). The Americans lost in the 2006 semifinals to Russia, the United States' only defeat in that event or the Olympics since 1994.
Thus, the two senior-most vets of the U.S. team know that it's possible to be upended, even though they've experienced it only once during their epic international careers. They understand what it takes to maintain their focus, discipline and dominance, which is what they hope to do when the Americans begin World Cup play versus Senegal on Saturday (ESPN+, 1 p.m. ET) in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. The 16-team event runs through Sept. 30.
Five Americans on the 2018 team have previously played in both the Olympics and World Cup: Seattle's Bird and Breanna Stewart, Phoenix's Taurasi and Brittney Griner and New York's Tina Charles. Washington's Elena Delle Donne played in the 2016 Olympics, and Los Angeles' Nneka Ogwumike in the 2014 World Cup. It will be the fifth World Cup for Bird, and fourth for Taurasi.
The remaining five U.S. players are in one of the biggest competitions for USA Basketball for the first time: Las Vegas' Wilson and Kelsey Plum, Connecticut's Morgan Tuck and Layshia Clarendon, and Seattle's Jewell Loyd. This is a big opportunity for all of them, and it will be especially interesting to see if Wilson, who at 22 is the youngest of the Americans, continues to play as well as she did all summer in the WNBA season and U.S. exhibitions.
"To sacrifice your time and your effort, it takes a lot of commitment," Taurasi said recently of her message to the U.S. team's younger players. "The more these kids stick with it, they'll find themselves with more great opportunities down the road."
It helped some of the younger players this time around that there are some familiar names not playing, as they deal with injuries or simply needing rest. That includes Minnesota's Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles, and Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry.
Thus, this competition feels like a little bigger turning of the page for Team USA than some teams in the past. Still, with Bird, who helped the Storm win their third WNBA title last week, and Taurasi bringing in so much experience at the guard position, there's also a sense that the U.S. ship is in steady hands.
The FIBA World Cup opens Saturday in Spain and runs through Sept. 30. The U.S. women's Group D games all tip off at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
And that's definitely true on the coaching side, with former USA player and current South Carolina mentor Dawn Staley as head coach, assisted by the Lynx's Cheryl Reeve, the Storm's Dan Hughes and George Washington's Jennifer Rizzotti.
It's also notable how quickly some players have become national team stalwarts. Stewart was the MVP of both the regular season and the WNBA Finals this year, even though she turned just 24 in August.
The 12 to make the final roster haven't all played together this year until Wednesday, when they faced Australia in a scrimmage the Americans won 70-60. Rapid preparation in a short window of time is standard operating procedure, of course, for the U.S. women. Starting with an intra-squad game on Sept. 5, at South Carolina, the Americans have played in six exhibitions and the scrimmage to get ready for the World Cup.
Senegal, the lowest-ranked team in the field, won't pose any real challenge to the U.S. squad, which can use that game to get everyone a little more comfortable together, a process that never takes the Americans very long. They beat Senegal 109-58 in an exhibition in France last Sunday.
The Americans' other Group D games are against China on Sunday and Latvia on Tuesday (both also we be on ESPN+ at 1 p.m. ET). All the tournament's group play will be on ESPN+, and ESPN networks will carry the quarterfinals and semifinals on a channel to be determined, with the championship game on ESPN. The World Cup winner gets an automatic berth into the 2020 Summer Olympics.
In the 2014 World Cup, the Americans beat Spain 77-64 in the gold-medal game, and the Spaniards are second behind the United States in FIBA's pre-event power rankings. Rounding out the top five are No. 3 France, No. 4 Canada and No. 5 Australia.
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All of the American players are in the WNBA. But there are also several players on other teams who either this season or in recent seasons played in the WNBA. That includes Australian center Liz Cambage, who was runner-up to Stewart in the MVP race this year and scored a WNBA-record 53 points in a game.
Also on the Aussie roster are Phoenix's Stephanie Talbot, Dallas' Cayla George, New York's Rebecca Allen, and Sami Whitcomb, who was part of the Storm's championship team. Stanford senior Alanna Smith also plays for the Aussies, who are coached by the Mercury's Sandy Brondello.
Spain has both Marta Xargay, who played in Phoenix in 2015 and '16, and Anna Cruz, who won a WNBA title with Minnesota in 2015 and also played with the Lynx in 2016 and the Liberty in 2014.
Canada is another team that has notable WNBA influence, with New York's Kia Nurse and Indiana's Natalie Achonwa.
Ultimately, this event is still considered the Americans' championship to lose. And with the United States' young players experiencing a different kind of pressure for the first time, there's some intrigue with that and how well other countries -- most of which have more preparation time together -- can challenge the favorites.