SEATTLE, Wash. -- The 2012 USA Women’s National Team (1-0) notched a 100-62 exhibition win over China on Saturday night at KeyArena in Seattle, Wash. That the U.S. women, ranked No. 1 in the world by FIBA, won was, by itself, unsurprising. That the Americans were able to so totally eviscerate the Chinese women -- ranked No. 7 in the world -- with only one day of practice under their belts since their roster was finalized late last month was impressive.
China put the first two points on the board from the charity stripe, but Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury) quickly answered with a three-pointer to put the U.S. on top. They never trailed again.
Nonetheless, China made a game of it for roughly the first 15 minutes. Spurred by three-pointers by Zengyu Ma, who finished with a game-high 20 points, including four-of-four from beyond the arc, plus four assists (but four turnovers) and three steals, and Zhao Shuang, who shot just one-of-six from the field in the first quarter but knocked down a well-timed 22-footer just after a Lindsay Whalen (Minnesota Lynx) jumper had made the score 23-13 at the 2:04 mark of the opening period, China answered each time the Americans managed to stretch their lead to double digits.
Throughout the first half, the American defense was porous and China made their adversaries pay for every missed assignment. "We gave up too many points in the first half," U.S. Senior Women's National Team (and University of Connecticut) head coach Geno Auriemma acknowledged. He went on to joke that "not one player on this team was picked because they're a great defensive player. We have all these good offensive players that are going to moan when we make them play defense."
While the U.S. defense obviously needs some fine-tuning, that was plainly a bit of Auriemma's typical hyperbole. For example, last season's WNBA MVP and four-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year (2005, 2006, 2009, 2010) Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever), out-hustled everybody on the court on the defensive side of the ball with five steals, five rebounds and a blocked shot. Catchings also led the U.S. team on offensive, scoring 19 points on nine-of-11 from the field.
On one play that epitomized her unstinting work ethic on the court, Catchings, on the run, grabbed the ball in a Chinese player's hands near the foul line. As her opponent struggled to maintain possession, Catchings continued to run, finally ripping the ball loose as both players tumbled out of bounds. Springing to her feet, Catchings quickly went over and extended her hand, helping her opponent up from the floor.
"Defense is going to be the last thing that we get right," said Auriemma, turning serious. "But as the weeks go on, we're going to get it right."
With the exception of turnovers, there was nothing wrong with the U.S. game on the offensive side of the ball, however. Throughout the game, Auriemma experimented with different line-ups, and midway through the second period, with Seimone Augustus (Minnesota Lynx), Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx), Sylvia Fowles (Chicago Sky), Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks), and Catchings on the floor, the Americans began to pull away.
It was Catchings, who had just reentered the game during a timeout at the 5:16 mark, who got things rolling, picking off a bad pass by Chinese guard Li Shanshan and taking it all the way for a fast-break lay-up to give the U.S. a 40-27 lead. Less than a minute later, Catchings blocked a Guan Xin mid-range jumper and grabbed the rebound. Though she lost the ball out of bounds on a bad pass, the Chinese were unable to take advantage, since Catchings made up for it on the next possession by intercepting Ji Yanyan's pass and knocking down a 20-footer.
Only 20 seconds later, Catchings grabbed her third steal in a span of less than a minute-and-a-half and ran it back on the fast-break for a lay-up that gave the U.S. a 15-point lead (44-29) with 3:26 to go in the period. Parker tipped in a Whalen miss less than a minute later, then Whalen got into the act with a steal and a fast-break lay-up, and Catchings picked off her fourth steal of the quarter, laying it in to bring the score to 50-29 at the 2:00 minute-mark. It was all downhill from there for Team China.
The Americans led 52-33 at the intermission, and only got better after the break, outscoring China 26-16 in the third quarter and 22-13 in the fourth. The U.S. reached 100 points with just 2.9 seconds remaining when Parker scored an alley-oop off of a pass from Whalen.
|China's 6-0 forward Zengyu Ma led all scorers with 20 points in Saturday's national team exhibition, while shooting a perfect four-for-four from three-point range. The 29-year-old Ma, a veteran on China's National Team, averages 16.9 points per game. (Photo by Lee Michaelson/FullCourt.com.)|
The U.S. also stepped things up both on defense and on the boards in the second half. After holding just a 15-12 edge on the glass at halftime, Team USA out-rebounded a Chinese team anchored by 6-10 center Wei Wei 20-5 the rest of the way. True, Wei, who played all but three-and-a-half minutes of the opening half, accounting for six of China's 12 first-half boards, got to play only 12 minutes-and-change the rest of the game due to foul trouble. But the Americans were also doing a much better job of boxing out, holding Wei to a single rebound in that span.
By some measures, it was a solid team effort for the Americans. Every member of the U.S. roster, with the exception of Tina Charles who is nursing a groin strain and did not play, saw at least 14 minutes of action. Every U.S. player scored. Five of them -- Catchings (19 points), Moore (15), Fowles (12), Parker (10) and Swin Cash, who was traded to the Chicago Sky in the off-season but got a hero's welcome from the Seattle crowd (10) -- finished in double figures. Players and coaches alike remarked that the game represented a "great start" for the United States, and accomplished the team's main goal at this point -- "making our identity," in Bird's words, "build[ing] some chemistry," according to Cash, and "setting a tone for how this particular United States team is going to play and what we're going to be about," as Auriemma put it.
In other respects, however, though the Americans, who shot a blistering 60.0 percent (42-69) from the field and 57.1 percent (four-of-seven) from the arc, proved they are already more than capable of piling up points, this team is still clearly a work in progress. One of the most telling statistics: the relative paucity of assisted field-goals (16 assists on 42 makes) and the high number of turnovers (21), which significantly exceeded the number of assists.
“When you’ve only had one practice with the team and this is our first game, it’s not going to look great,” said Auriemma. "We were shuffling guys in and out, trying different things. We could've played eight players and looked really good doing it, but that's not the intent of today. It took us a while to find our stride and the right combinations that play well together."
The U.S. assist-to-field goal ratio is likely to rise, and the number of turnovers fall, as this team gets more time together. Significantly, in Auriemma's view, both shortcomings were the product of of a team ethos of unselfishness, which will likely pay dividends in the long run.
"You have an all-star team with the best players in America so they all want to prove that they're unselfish. So instead of taking a wide open shot, they throw a stupid pass," said Auriemma, pointing out that the more you pass the ball around, the closer you come to turning it over. "That's what most of the turnovers were tonight. As they settle in, they'll realize that it's okay to shoot the ball."
And if that's indeed the case, the rest of the world has a serious problem on its hands. If Team USA can shoot better than 60 percent from the field, putting 100 points on the scoreboard with one day of practice and players reluctant to pull the trigger, imagine what the scores will look like after two more training camps, a couple of warm-up tournaments, and players who know they have a green light to let 'er rip when they're open!
In the end, however, Team USA's strength lies not in firepower alone. As has been the case since 1996, its major weapon is its depth.
Sue Bird, who made her debut on the Senior National Team in China at the Women's World Championships in 2002 and is now one of the team's veterans, believes this team is deeper than ever.
"I think back to [the Athens Olympics in 2004] -- I don't know that we were as deep. This team and 2008 ... the talent is so deep. You can go out there and exert all your energy because you know that with the next person coming in, there's going to be no drop-off," said Bird, who played wearing a protective face mask because she has once again sustained a broken nose.
"This team is very deep," Bird continued. "A lot of line-ups, a variety of things you can throw at teams, and it'll probably work because the talent is there. The one thing that never changes is how selfless everyone is. Very unselfish. [They] only want to win a gold medal, will do whatever it takes -- that part will always remain the same."
“I thought it was a great start for us,” Cash said. “Everyone came out with a lot of focus on what we wanted to get done and that was to try and build some chemistry. I thought we achieved that. We understand we have a ways to go, but this is a great first step.”
Team USA will wrap up its first training camp of 2012 with a scrimmage against Japan at 10 a.m. (PDT) on May 12 before the players return to their respective WNBA training camps.
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