It's always weird to focus on the loser in a sports contest, especially when the loser gets blown out 86-50 in a gold medal game by an opposing country that has won 41 straight games and 5 consecutive gold medals.
But it's hard to disagree with USA head coach Geno Auriemma's point that France was the team of the tournament - those weren't just gracious words from a coach who has wins to spare. Years of preparation paid off for France and it showed not only in surprising most people by even getting to the gold medal game, but in their execution and their ability to even hang around with the U.S. as long as they did before a third quarter that showed the gap between the two teams.
And Celine Dumerc, as the team's heart and soul, deserves the praise that Auriemma gave her.
Sometimes a team just finds itself during a tournament, and I thought the French team was the team of the tournament. I think if you take us out of the tournament, honestly I'm partial to our team; I thought France was the team of the tournament. The way they played consistently from day one all the way to the end, and I thought Celine (Dumerc) was the most important player and the most impactful player in the tournament, and I just want to say congratulations.
France statistical MVP: Celine Dumerc's impact present even in a blowout loss
The statistical evidence for Auriemma's point is pretty clear: when Dumerc was on the bench in the first half, before the game got completely out of hand in the third quarter, USA was better than France by a score 15-4. That leaves a 22-21 USA advantage in the first half when in Dumerc was on the floor - even when the deficit was still manageable for France, the difference with Dumerc on the floor to run the offense was quite stark.
That's not too surprising based on previous games - net plus/minus doesn't tell us a full story over so few games, but Dumerc was a +12.4, second on her team and had the second-best PER* of anyone in the tournament (32.93).
That's not to say that playing Dumerc more could've changed the outcome of the game, but going into halftime down a couple of possessions instead of double digits and struggling to score for long stretches of time - France made two field goals in the first half (one per quarter) with Dumerc out. And while her impact might not have immediately jumped out at you at the boxscore, take this for whatever it's worth to you: despite shooting 2-for-10 from the field against the USA, Dumerc ended up accounting for 50% of France's overall statistical production. But how did that even happen?
Put simply, as you can already tell from the final score, France's entire team just had an awful game highlighted by that difficult third quarter.
Key statistic: France's shooting efficiency was under 30%
Stunningly, France's 25% shooting from the field in the third quarter wasn't the worst of the game - that would be their 3-for-16 (18.75%) effort in the second quarter.
In other words, while Dumerc's 2-for-10 shooting was subpar, most of her teammates were too. And Dumerc's team-high 4 steals and 3 assists with no turnovers made her overall contribution to the team much greater than her teammates.
And in the face of such a difficult challenge for France, Dumerc's real value to the team stood out near the end of the game when she was still hustling and playing aggressive defense when the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt. That kind of heart, the same kind of heart that it takes for a country that has never medaled before to make it to the knockout rounds and win a silver medal, always leaves an impression on anyone who respects a true competitor. And there were few competitors who stood out in quite the way Dumerc did during this games.
When you put that together with her statistical contributions to her team - one of the best 3-point shooters in the tournament prior to the U.S. game - it's easy to make the case for her as the most impactful player of the tournament and by extension a strong candidate for MVP of the tournament, depending on how you'd define "value".
USA statistical MVP: Candace Parker's double-double headlines the U.S. effort
None of the praise for Dumerc is to say that other players weren't better, even if the U.S. was so balanced throughout the Olympics that singling out one player as most impactful was sometimes difficult.
But Candace Parker was outstanding in the final game, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, looking as comfortable as she had all tournament filling the role Auriemma laid out for her as a rebounder and lane-runner. She and Taurasi were a deadly combination and Parker got her points within the offense rather than having to create everything for herself. It was an impressive performance, even if some L.A. Sparks fans might be used to her doing more things throughout the course of a game - playing with talented teammates, it was almost impossible to focus attention on her and she made France pay on a number of occasions.
Key player: Sylvia Fowles' rebounding
Fowles only played about 12 minutes, but grabbing six boards in that time is noteworthy even if we might expect a MVP candidate like Fowles (or Parker) to be doing more out there - she was second behind Parker accounting for 14.08% of the team's overall statistical production. Also of note is that Fowles was in the game during the end of the first quarter when the U.S. went on their 9-2 run with Dumerc out.
Yet it might seem as odd to highlight Fowles as it does to highlight the play of Dumerc - basically, Fowles is getting a boost for only missing one shot and getting her points off free throws. But her performance in limited minutes as well as Parker's adjusted role in the Olympics compared to the Sparks highlights the thing that was most fun to watch over the course of the Olympics - some of the most talented women's basketball stars in the nation came together and sacrificed some element of the games that has elevated them to WNBA All-Star status in the interest of winning games.
The evolution of a team that clearly hadn't yet gelled to a team that could completely dismantle an opponent and never let up in the final game was as impressive as the final margin of victory. We can only imagine how good they'd become if they had more time together, but for now a fifth straight gold will do just fine to earn their place in history.
*The top PER in the tournament: Angel McCoughtry (49.76).