On a night of questions and feelings of disappointment in Tokyo for the U.S. women’s gym, softball, and soccer programs, the U.S. women’s basketball team was a ray of hope, recording their 50th straight win with an 81-72 win in the opening game on Tuesday against Nigeria.
Probably the biggest storyline came from a player who didn’t play for either team, despite having the skills and dual American-Nigerian citizenship. Citing a recent injury, U.S. basketball shocked Stanford alum Nneka Ogwumike ’12 off the U.S. Olympic squad despite being a core member of the national team for the past few years, making her the only WNBA MVP to have never been was accepted into an Olympic team. Feeling betrayed and shocked, Ogwumike applied for the Nigerian national team instead, but FIBA, the global umbrella organization for basketball, turned down her application because of its longstanding involvement in US basketball. That meant that instead of helping the US find gold or trying to get Nigeria to its first basketball medal, she stayed home.
Without Ogwumike’s superior skills, Ezinne Kalu stepped up and led the Nigerians by 16 points, shooting 6-for-11 from the field and 4-for-5 at the free throw line. Las Vegas Aces striker A’ja Wilson, who graduated from the University of South Carolina, led the US team on her Olympic debut with 19 points and 13 rebounds.
The game began with a rocky first quarter, consisting of eight ball losses and fouls by the Americans, who were 20:17 behind at the end. According to Wilson, head coach Dawn Staley’s advice for the team was to do whatever it takes to win. The players obviously took that to heart; After falling 25:20 at the start of the second quarter, four-time Olympic champion Sue Bird threw a pass at basketball legend Diana Taurasi, who hit a jumper and cheered the team on. From then on it was a smooth sailing.
Widely regarded as one of the best passers-by of all time, Bird assisted Wilson’s Springer after a defensive rebound from Taurasi, and they put down a 23-0 run before the halftime buzzer sounded. With her 13 assists, Bird managed to beat her previous Olympic record of nine in one game and also achieved 102 total Olympic assists that have accumulated over the course of 20 years.
Although Taurasi and Bird, with their vast experience and legendary skills, are clearly the stars of this team, Tuesday’s game also showed the outstanding talents of several other players. 6’9 Phoenix Mercury Center Brittney Griner, who is only one of 11 players to ever win an Olympic gold medal, a FIBA World Cup gold medal, a WNBA title, and an NCAA title, racked up 13 points and 10 rebounds. In addition, Seattle Storm striker Breanna Stewart and 6’6 Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles each added nine points for a total of 16 rebounds for Team USA.
Meanwhile, 6’4 center Victoria Macaulay played an even game for Nigeria, scoring 11 points and shooting 5 for 6 from the free-throw line. Both point guard Promise Amukamara and striker Adaora Elonu, who won the 2011 NCAA championship with Texas A&M, had 10 points for Nigeria, with Amukamara also adding three rebounds and four assists.
Team USA will play Japan on Thursday, July 29th at 1:40 p.m. JST or Wednesday at 9:40 p.m. PST.