LAS VEGAS — Coach Dawn Staley spoke calmly after the U.S. women’s basketball team lost 70-67 to Australia on Friday, but leading scorer and rebounder Breanna Stewart admitted she was bugged by the defeat.
After their second consecutive exhibition loss — the first time that has happened to the U.S. women’s national team since 2011 — people might wonder if there’s reason to worry about the six-time defending Olympic champions, who are less than two weeks from their opener on July 27 at the Tokyo Games.
“Some of the things that we did out there were remarkably better than what it was on Wednesday,” Staley said of Team USA’s 93-85 loss to Team WNBA in the All-Star Game, which was also played at Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay.
But Seattle Storm forward Stewart, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds Friday, was blunt.
“Anytime I’m representing USA, there’s a standard. And the standard is winning,” said Stewart, who will be going to her second Olympics. “So we haven’t gotten to that point yet, and it is frustrating. But it’s a part of the game, a part of the process.”
There is not much time for the process to play out. The United States faces Nigeria on Sunday in another exhibition, then leaves for Japan.
“When we get to the Olympics, that’s when it’s really, really crunch time,” Stewart said. “We do have to put this on the fast track.”
Here’s a look at the most pressing concerns for the U.S. women.
What’s up with the offense?
A group of the best players from the top-rated country in women’s hoops scored only 67 points against an Australian team that didn’t even have Liz Cambage. The Australian center and two-time Olympian pulled out of the Tokyo Games competition on Thursday, citing mental health issues after incidents here in Las Vegas, where she plays for the Aces. Cambage was involved in a physical altercation and verbal exchange during a closed scrimmage game against Nigeria earlier this week, sources told ESPN’s Olgun Uluc.
The Americans have eight of the top 11 scorers in the WNBA thus far this season, led by the Washington Mystics’ Tina Charles, who is averaging a league-best 26.3 PPG. Centers Sylvia Fowles (60.8%) of the Minnesota Lynx and Brittney Griner (57.6%) of the Phoenix Mercury are 1-2 in field goal percentage in the WNBA. Team USA has the WNBA’s all-time assists leader in Sue Bird. This team should be primed to put up points.
Yet Friday, the U.S. women shot 37.3% from the field and 11.1% (2 of 18) from 3-point range, with both treys coming from Stewart and none from a guard. Team USA had 18 turnovers, including an uncharacteristic six from Bird to offset her six assists.
“Australia made it hard for us to make entry passes, and they made us go to a different option,” Staley said. “At times, we got pretty good ball movement, and at times we got a little stagnant. I think that is just from everybody playing their own style of play, what they do for their respective (WNBA) teams.
“If you move the ball quick enough, I think you can shift the defense a little bit and our shooting percentage will increase with every reversal that we get.”
The Americans also didn’t get much in transition, scoring just three fast-break points.
“I think we can get down the floor a little bit and play quicker,” Staley said. “I think we are just a step behind because we are trying to figure each other out.”
What’s up with the defense?
Team USA made nine more free throws than Australia and won the rebounding battle 41-28. The Americans also took eight more shots from the field than the Aussies. But along with their struggles on offense, they were not defensively sharp.
Australia shot 45.8% from the field and went 10 of 26 from 3-point range. The U.S. women led 41-28 at halftime, but they were outscored 42-26 in the second half, with Australia doing a better job of getting the ball inside and converting.
Seattle forward Ezi Magbegor, who is in her second WNBA season, was 6 of 7 from the field for a team-high 17 points for Australia. New York Liberty forward Rebecca Allen had 11 points. Allen has started just six WNBA games this season and Magbegor, two. The U.S. front line has four former WNBA MVPs — Charles, Fowles, Stewart and A’ja Wilson — and Fowles and Griner combine for five WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards.
In the All-Star Game loss, Team USA struggled particularly with guarding the perimeter, as Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale had 26 points in earning MVP honors, and Atlanta Dream guard Courtney Williams scored 15. Team WNBA outrebounded Team USA 41-37, led by the Connecticut Sun’s Jonquel Jones with 14.
Stewart said while the Americans need to play better team defense, they also have to step up individually.
“The guard-your-yard mentality, guard your man,” Stewart said. “Make sure they aren’t able to get anything easy. I think we can all do better in that area.”
How soon will the rotations stabilize?
The United States has used the same starting five for both games: forwards Stewart and Wilson, center Griner and guards Bird and Jewell Loyd. Olympic first-timer Wilson has played the least combined minutes of the starters in these two exhibitions; she was on court just over 12 minutes Friday, but made all five of her shots from the field.
Fowles, who is going to her fourth Olympics, played just less than 10 minutes Friday, while Griner, who will appear in her second Summer Games, played 14:14. Olympic first-timer Napheesa Collier of Minnesota didn’t play at all in the first half but got 15:31 minutes in the second.
Getting the right rotations when you have so much talent is always something Team USA has to work on, and that was obvious Friday.
“Somebody’s not going to play as many minutes as one would like,” said Staley, who didn’t expand on what the coaching staff has learned from the substitution patterns so far.
How much is Diana Taurasi missed?
Like Bird, Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi is headed to her fifth Olympics. However, Taurasi has been dealing with a hip injury and hasn’t played since July 3. She said her goal is to be ready for the games in Tokyo, and her absence in these last two games has been noticeable. The U.S. women made a combined nine 3-pointers Wednesday and Friday, with four of those coming from Stewart. Taurasi is the league’s all-time leader in points (9,040) and 3-pointers (1,179). Staley said 3-point shooting is an area the Americans must improve.
“It’s tough missing Diana, because Diana not only scores well, but she’s a tremendous passer,” Staley said. “And she will help with the flow of our offense. We add an experienced player who can make sound and great basketball decisions.”
Has the U.S. women’s confidence taken a hit?
The Americans’ swagger might be dented just a bit with these two losses. The Australians tried to downplay Friday’s victory since it was an exhibition, but it was a big deal. The Aussies looked more cohesive than the U.S. women Friday.
Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello has been with the Opals program a long time, as both a player (for 17 years) and now as head coach, and this was her first win against the United States.
“We know they’re going to be a better team, and we know we can be a better team,” Brondello said. “This was our first real game together in such a long time. [But] we have great camaraderie and great chemistry.”
Since 1995-96 when the U.S. women started their current streak of Olympic gold, the national team is 199-18 in exhibition play, counting this week’s two losses.
This is the first time since losses to Ros Casares Valencia and USK Prague during a European tour in 2011 that the U.S. national team has lost consecutive exhibitions. But that was a year with no major tournament — this is the U.S. Olympic team with the Summer Games soon to start.
“I think we’ve figured out our ball-screen defense a little bit,” Stewart said. “And I think the big thing is just communicating. So then if we do have lapses where we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do, we’re able to work through it quickly on the court.
“The majority of the time, we weren’t on the same page. That’s just gonna come with more time together. We’re here for one reason, and one reason only, and that’s to win the gold medal. We need to do everything we can to be in that head space.”