After clinching its sixth straight Olympic gold medal with a 101-72 win over Spain, the United States gathered as a team at midcourt and chanted, “USA!” Most players then waved to fans on both sides of the arena, but Sue Bird had to take a step back and cover her face, trying to hold back tears.
Bird walked back to the locker room with her arm around Diana Taurasi, her partner in crime on four consecutive Olympic champion teams. The former UConn teammates, plus fellow legend Tamika Catchings, made history in Saturday’s final game in Rio de Janeiro. No basketball player has more gold medals than them, and only Lisa Leslie and Teresa Edwards have as many.
“I’m just super happy,” Bird told USAB.com after the game. “I’m proud to be part of this group. …We just did something that’s pretty incredible. When you get together as a team and you know you only have a month to do something, it’s remarkable in so many ways that we were able to put this together and do it in a fashion that leaves no question marks.”
Bird was back in the starting lineup on Saturday, returning after a one-game absence due to the knee sprain she suffered in the quarterfinals. The Storm veteran had three points, two boards, one assist and two steals in 17 minutes. After recording just 15 assists as a team without Bird in the semifinal, the USA had 16 in the first half alone and totaled 29 with Bird running the point.
Storm teammate Breanna Stewart, by far the youngest American player at 21, won her first Olympic gold medal. The rookie had 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting, two assists, two rebounds and one block in 11 minutes off the bench. Stewart finished her first Olympics with averages of 8.1 points on 73.3 percent shooting and 2.3 rebounds.
Stewart’s 2016 thus far: guided UConn to its fourth straight title, went No. 1 overall in the WNBA Draft, crowned an Olympic champion.
“This is in a league of its own,” Stewart told USAB.com after Saturday’s game. “This is a different kind of toughness to be able to win a gold medal. You come together with 11 other great players, best players in the world, and we had two weeks to prepare. Then we got here, played well and acted like we’d been playing with each other for the entire year.”
Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen paced the USA with 17 points apiece on Saturday, and Maya Moore finished with 14 points, six assists and five rebounds after a stellar first half. Alba Torrens led Spain with 18 points in a game that was close in the first quarter, but the USA had a commanding lead by halftime and never looked back.
The Americans extended their run as the most dominant team in any women’s sport in Olympics history. Their six consecutive gold medals are only bested by the USA men’s basketball team, which won seven in a row from 1936 to 1968.
This edition of the women’s team proved to be one of the best, going 8-0 and setting a new record with six 100-point games. The USA’s average margin of victory was 37.1 points.
“It was an incredible tournament for us,” coach Geno Auriemma told USAB.com. “From the very first game that we played to today, with very few exceptions, I thought we played basketball at a really high level. I can’t say enough about our players and how quickly they’ve come together, how much they’ve been able to accomplish.”
As the starting point guard, Bird finished the tournament with an insane assist-to-turnover ratio of 7.8. She had five or more assists and zero turnovers in three different games. Bird now has 86 career assists in the Olympics, ranking second all-time among American players.
Bird, Taurasi and Catchings exited Saturday’s game together midway through the fourth quarter. The trio will forever be linked to one another for the four straight gold medals. For Bird, it all started right after her senior year at UConn, when she helped the USA win gold at the 2002 FIBA World Championships. She now has seven combined gold medals in Olympics and World Championships, more than any other American including Taurasi and Catchings.
In other words, it’s not a stretch to say Bird is the most successful women’s basketball player ever on the international stage.