TOKYO — For the first time in a long time, the U.S. women’s basketball team came to the Olympics dogged by some doubts.
Not about whether it would fall short of a gold medal, which is still in the realm of believe-it-when-you-see-it. But the stress level it might take to get there is an open discussion for Team USA, which has six first-time Olympians, relies heavily on a 40-year-old and a 39-year-old and didn’t exactly look primed for a historically dominant run during its training camp in Las Vegas.
Based on Tuesday’s 81-72 win over Nigeria in its Olympic opener, those questions are still valid.
While Team USA never seemed in danger of losing, it was not a visually or statistically impressive performance for an outfit that has often played breathtaking basketball in these settings.
For a variety of reasons, it’s clear now that the bar for this team should be significantly lower. As players and coaches repeated time and again in the lead-up to the Olympics, this journey with a newer roster was going to be about taking steps forward every day.
Still, outside of a 23-0 run for the U.S. in the second quarter when shots started falling, the Americans were not far and away the better team for much of the game. In fact, Nigeria’s full-court pressure defense gave Team USA fits and contributed significantly to the 25 turnovers the Americans coughed up.
When the U.S. could produce clean looks near the rim, it took advantage, making 52% from inside the arc. The rest of the time, the Americans were plagued by miscommunication, loose ball-handling and poor shooting from the perimeter, hitting just 5-of-20 from the 3-point line. On the defensive end, Team USA gave up 19 offensive rebounds.
The U.S. created a 20-point gap at the end of the third quarter and had command throughout the second half but never quite put Nigeria away fully. The Americans could have paid for that, as Nigeria closed within 75-67 at the 3-minute mark. But a floater by Sylvia Fowles coming out of a timeout and a pair of mid-range jumpers by Chelsea Gray ended the threat.
A’Ja Wilson, making her Olympic debut, led Team USA with 19 points while center Brittney Griner had 13.