Women’s basketball at the Olympics begins Saturday, when Storm forward Ramu Tokashiki and Japan take on Belarus. Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and the United States open against Senegal on Sunday. This marks the first time multiple Storm players are on the USA Olympic roster.
Here is everything you need to know about the Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Bird still leading the charge
Judging by last week’s tune-up games, the 35-year-old Bird could play a vital role in her fourth Olympic appearance for the Americans. She started at point guard in all four exhibitions, leading the team in assists in three of them. On a squad with several elite scorers, Bird’s role seems similar to the 2012 Olympics, when she averaged 4.5 dimes per game and led all guards with a 3.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Bird, who started playing for the National Team right after her college career ended in 2002, is one of just three players (Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings) to be named to each of the past four Olympic teams. They are tri-captains on this year’s squad and could tie Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie’s record by winning their fourth gold medal.
Stewart not your typical first-timer
Bird was 23 at her first Olympics, and Stewart will make her debut a few weeks before turning 22. She’s one of three USA players making their first Olympic appearance (Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner) and becomes the fourth WNBA rookie to represent the USA. Stewart enters the Games having already won six gold medals, including a title alongside Bird at the 2014 FIBA World Championships. She’s played on the international stage every summer since age 14 and twice been named USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year.
Stewart is the youngest USA women’s basketball player in the Olympics since 1988, and it’s unclear how much time she will spend on the court. She played a total of 36 minutes over six games at the World Championships two years ago. During last week’s exhibition slate, Stewart averaged five points and 2.8 rebounds in 13 minutes per game.
Tokashiki the star for Japan
This will also be the first Olympics for Tokashiki, and Japan’s first women’s basketball appearance since 2004. In its previous four Olympics, the Japanese team has never medaled. Tokashiki’s squad is No. 16 in the FIBA World Rankings, the second-lowest ranking of any nation in the Olympics.
Tokashiki, now in her second year with the Storm, was the driving force behind Japan winning the FIBA Asia Championships to qualify for the Olympics. She earned MVP at each of the last two FIBA Asia Championships, in addition to three MVP honors in Japan’s WJBL, where she plays in the WNBA offseason. Tokashiki has led the WJBL in scoring each of the last two years.
Most dominant Olympic team ever?
The USA has claimed five straight gold medals in women’s basketball, and it enters this tournament on a 41-game Olympic winning streak, dating back to 1992 (before Stewart was born). In all, the Americans have won seven gold medals, one silver medal and one bronze medal, going 58-3 in Olympic competition.
Five consecutive gold medals is the longest Olympic streak in any women’s team sport. On the men’s side, just two teams have won more consecutive gold medals in the past: USA basketball (seven from 1936-68) and India field hockey (six from 1928-56).
Australia likely biggest threat to USA
Even without recently retired Storm legend Lauren Jackson, Australia is No. 2 in the FIBA World Rankings and gave the USA its toughest test during last week’s exhibition games. The Americans won 104-89, but it was close throughout the first half and no other opponent scored more than 62 points. In fact, no nation has reached 80 points versus the USA in any of the last three Olympics.
Australia has lost to the USA in the knockout round of five straight Olympics, including the gold-medal games in 2000, 2004 and 2008. This year’s team features Penny Taylor of the Phoenix Mercury and Erin Phillips of the Dallas Wings, plus five former WNBA players. Australia is in Group A along with Japan, and the USA is in Group B, so they could only meet in the knockout round.
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