RIO DE JANEIRO — The last time the U.S. women’s basketball team suffered a loss at the Olympics, Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” was Billboard’s No. 1 song, cell phones were still too big and cumbersome to fit in pockets and Hilary Clinton was just the outspoken wife of the governor of Arkansas.
That remarkable 49-game win streak won’t end for at least another four years.
The American women completed their march to a sixth straight gold medal on Saturday afternoon with a display of invincibility the superstar-laden U.S. men’s team has seldom come close to matching. They opened a double-digit lead early in the second quarter, increased it to 17 by halftime and put away Spain soon afterward en route to a 101-72 rout of the world’s No. 3 ranked team.
Another emphatic American victory accurately reflected the chasm separating them and the rest of the women’s basketball field in Rio. Their average margin of victory in eight games at this year’s Olympics was 37.3 points and they never won by fewer than 19 points.
No other team in the field could come close to matching Team USA’s depth, talent or star power. Reigning WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne came off the bench, three-time national college player of the year Breanna Stewart played even more sparingly and 2013 WNBA MVP Candace Parker failed to even make the roster.
“It does look easy from afar, but being a part of this for the first time, it’s tough,” Delle Donne said. “Having to come together in under a month’s time is not easy, not at all. Not only that, we’re coming right out of season. There are some players that are banged up or tired, but we’ve all put that aside. It’s amazing where this team was able to go.”
The sustained brilliance of the U.S. women’s basketball program begs an obvious question: Is this the most dominant team at the Olympics? The answer is yes, though other American women’s teams certainly merit consideration too.
U.S. rowers have now won 11 straight world or Olympic titles in women’s eight after finishing two seconds ahead of Great Britain on August 13. The U.S. women’s gymnastics team captured team gold and might have swept all three spots on the all-around podium had more than two athletes from each country been allowed to compete. And the U.S. women’s water polo team beat its six opponents in Rio by an average of 6.8 goals, surpassing its mark in 2012 when it tied Spain in pool play and survived three close knockout-round matches to win gold.
Impressive as those achievements are, none of those teams can match the vice grip the U.S. women’s basketball team has put on its sport for more than two decades now. The last 25 Olympic victories the Americans have claimed have each come by 10 or more points and the average margin in those games has been 37.
“They’re so good, so good,” Spanish center Laia Palau said.
Added Spanish guard Silva Dominguez, “To play against them, you’ve got to be perfect. If you’re not, you can’t win.”
Superior talent certainly is an ingredient in the U.S. women’s success, but that alone won’t forge a juggernaut. The series of narrow escapes by the American men’s basketball team in Rio is proof of that.
What the women do extremely well is come together as a team despite only a couple weeks of preparation, a feat aided by the fact that their roster has been more stable than the men’s. In Rio, the women have nine holdovers from London compared to just two for the men. It also helps that five former UConn players are part of this year’s Olympic team, bringing an understanding of Geno Auriemma’s approach and expectations.
Credit the women’s team for also being willing to sacrifice scoring chances or playing time in pursuit of a common goal. Every U.S. player besides Diana Taurasi logged 20 or fewer minutes per game in Rio and nobody averaged even 10 shots, yet seldom if ever did any of them hunt shots or complain about their role.
“We all have to sacrifice,” center Brittney Griner said. “On all of our teams, we’re the go-to players. We come here and give up shots that we normally take, and it’s all for winning this, it’s all for winning gold.”
It was Taurasi, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen who carried the U.S. women on Saturday. Taurasi scored 17 points and helped break the game open early in the second quarter with back-to-back 3-pointers, while Moore and Whalen combined for 31 points to ensure that Spain never mounted any semblance of a second-half challenge.
When it was all over — the title game, the victory hugs and the medal podium — two longtime U.S. standouts were asked to evaluate whether this incarnation of the women’s national team was the best yet. Center Sylvia Fowles and guard Seimone Augustus both sidestepped the question with a smile.
“I’m going to leave that to you guys,” Fowles said. “You guys make that decision.”
It’s hard to argue otherwise even though previous U.S. women’s basketball teams have set a high standard. With a blend of veteran stars and promising newcomers willing to put the team above their individual goals, the U.S. captured another gold, extended its winning streak and added to its reputation as the Olympics’ most dominant team.