Saturday, September 22, 2007

U.S. women’s basketball in transition period heading into Olympic qualifier

NEW YORK — It’s a new era for U.S. women’s basketball, with veteran mainstays Teresa Edwards, Yolanda Griffith and Dawn Staley all gone.

The U.S. will be looking for new leaders while they try to qualify for the 2008 Olympics by winning the FIBA Americas tournament Sept. 26-30.

Because of a loss in the 2006 World Championships, the United States found itself in an unfamiliar position, having to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since the 1980 Moscow Games, which were boycotted.

“There is clearly a changing of the guard going on with the departure of Teresa, Dawn and Sheryl (Swoopes),” USA basketball president Val Ackerman said. “It’s all part of the process. We think we have some terrific young players coming into the mix. Some of the players from 2004 who were new to the Olympics are becoming leaders: Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Tina Thompson.”

The dominance of the U.S. women’s teams over the last decade with three Olympic gold medals and two World Championships to their credit can easily be attributed to the long-term dedication of veteran players such as Lisa Leslie, Staley, Edwards and Thompson.

“The positive things in the past we’ve had so many veteran players who have stayed on and played,” said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, who led the U.S. team to the gold in 1984. “It’s been a tremendous commitment on their behalf. We have some very talented, but young players that are going to have to step up and grow up in a hurry.”

Thompson was the only player at the last World Championships who had started before in a major international competition. Bird, Catchings and Taurasi were all on the 2004 Olympic team, but were primarily role players.

The inexperience showed in the 75-68 loss to Russia in the World Championships semifinals.

“We had a younger team in Brazil than in previous years,” Bird said recently at training camp. “Maybe it was our time to have a learning experience. I would have rather had a gold medal with the learning experience, but I know that we will be very focused and sharp from now on.”

Bird and the other guards still benefit from Staley’s knowledge. She has stayed involved with the program as an assistant coach and has been able to provide a unique perspective to the guards not only as a coach, but as someone who has won three gold medals as a player.

“She’s been invaluable to us,” Kara Lawson said. “She can tell you what you’re doing wrong as a coach, but also as someone who has played the position.”

Edwards was around training camp to impart her wisdom on the new players, but playing a game of horse against Staley was as close as she got to the court. Don’t bother asking Staley who won.

“I think with the loss of so many veterans, it concerns USA basketball,” said Summitt, a member of the selection committee.

One veteran who is still playing is Leslie. She won’t be at the FIBA Americas tournament as she is still getting into shape after giving birth to a daughter in June. She has been working hard and hopes to join the team for an eight-game college tour beginning Oct. 31.

“She hasn’t passed the torch on yet,” U.S. coach Anne Donovan said. “We look forward to her rejoining the program and being back because she is one of our players. Having a player on the floor that has done what she has done is really important.”

While the team may be in a state of flux, the future definitely looks bright. The United States went 22-0 this summer in international tournaments, capturing the Pan American Games, the Under-19 World Championships and the Under-21 World title.

College stars Candace Parker, Candice Wiggins and Courtney Paris are headed to Chile for the qualifying tournament. LSU senior Sylvia Fowles participated in the first part of training camp and looked dominant in the post.

“It’s an exciting time,” USA Basketball executive Renee Brown said. “I can remember in 1995-96 when we had Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain, they passed the torch to Lisa, Dawn and Sheryl. The beauty of USA basketball is all these girls have grown up wanting to play for the USA team.”

Parker and Wiggins were in elementary school when they had their first taste of U.S. women’s basketball, watching the team play in 1996. Wiggins even got to serve as a ball girl when the team came to her hometown.

“We talked about it a lot, us being 10, 11 years old,” Parker said. “The team coming around on its tour with Sheryl and Dawn. Now it’s really exciting to be here and a part of it.”

The college players have already left a lasting impression. Wiggins scored 18 points in the first exhibition game against Australia. Parker scored 13 of her 23 points in a key spurt Wednesday night to help the U.S. hold off the Aussies in an exhibition rematch.

"Those young ones are the future,” Staley said. “They have a chance down the road to carry the torch the same way that Lisa, Teresa and I did.”

If somehow the U.S. doesn’t win the tournament in Chile, there is a last-chance Olympic qualifier next June. Just don’t mention that to Donovan, who won two Olympic gold medals as a player in 1984 and 1988.

“It is a must win,” Donovan said of the FIBA Americas tournament. “This is all we’re focused on. There is no Beijing if we don’t win in Chile.”

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