With four-time Olympian Diana Taurasi at the helm, the U.S. women’s team sailed through the quarterfinals on Tuesday, beating Japan 110-64 to remain undefeated in its quest to snag a sixth straight gold medal for the States.
The 46-point final spread seems to indicate another yawn-inducing blowout by the sensational U.S. squad, but unlike most of the U.S. contests we’ve seen – this win was no cakewalk.
“I’m just proud of this team,” Taurasi said. “You look at the score, and you think it was an easy game…but that’s probably one of the toughest teams I’ve ever played against in the Olympics.”
A scrappy Japanese lineup put up a solid fight against their American competitors in the first half, demanding high-tempo play from the high-flying U.S. squad, which teetered within two points of Japan for most of the second quarter.
Even Geno Auriemma was shaking his head on the sideline, shell-shocked by Japan’s uncanny affinity for three-pointers; they went 7-for-11 behind the arc in the first half alone.
“That first half, they were running us ragged a little bit,” said Auriemma. “They were making us confused on defense. They were pushing the ball. They were getting whatever they wanted.”
Suddenly, the virtually untouchable U.S. “dream team” found itself scrambling to maintain a two-point lead with just over four minutes remaining. Taurasi came to the rescue nearing halftime, zapping her team back to life with a soaring 3-pointer beyond the key and again – moments later – drilling a 3-pointer from the corner, drawing the foul and earning the opportunity for a four-point play with just over two minutes left in the first half.
When three-time gold medalist Sue Bird hobbled off the court with an injured knee in the second quarter, Taurasi picked up the slack, handling the ball with her usual composure and raising the stakes on offense to spark an electrifying run for the U.S. in the second half.
“Right now, it’s more your mind,” Taurasi observed. “It’s mind over matter. It’s are you willing to do the little things, are you willing to really concentrate in the rotations and make the extra pass.”
Maya Moore and Taurasi joined forces to retaliate when Japan inched its way back within six points of the U.S. early in the third quarter. Taurasi hit her fifth three-pointer of the game on the coattail of a five-point streak by Moore, stretching the U.S. lead to 14 points for the first time in the game.
The dynamic duo blazed a scoring trail in the third quarter that buried Japan for good (U.S. outscored them 25-13 in the third quarter alone).
“We’re older. We have a lot of experience. We didn’t panic, and we just found a way to keep grinding it out, and it worked out for us,” said Taurasi.
Taurasi went for 19 points total, including a game high of five three-pointers. The dominance of USA’s leading Olympic scorer wasn’t restricted to the outside; she proved her chops on the block, posting up every now and then to drop in two bank shots.
“You can’t say enough about the tone Diana sets for our team,” Auriemma expressed. “Most people don’t realize it, and it’s both ends of the floor – defensively, offensively.”
As Tuesday’s close encounter with Japan shows, this guard-center hybrid is Team USA’s leading scorer in Rio – and arguably Team USA’s most steadfast asset.
After the game, the Japanese players asked the U.S. women for a simple favor – a photo-op.