Perhaps the most dynastic sports team will put its record-breaking streak on the line when the FIBA World Cup tips off this week in Sydney, Australia.
A new-look USA women’s basketball team led by Storm standouts Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd and WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson highlights a heavily favored and star-studded squad looking to extend its dominance against a field of international competitors that believes the Americans are vulnerable for the first time in decades.
Since 1996, USA Basketball has compiled a ridiculous 101-1 record in the Olympics and World Cups, including 12 gold medals dating back to 1996. Since a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup, the U.S. has won 52 games in both tournaments.
However, USA Basketball is without stalwarts Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles, who retired, while veterans Diana Taurasi and Tina Charles have seemingly aged out of international competition.
Napheesa Collier, who gave birth earlier this year, is taking a hiatus from international basketball as is Skylar Diggins-Smith, who is out for personal reasons. And Brittney Griner remains detained in Russia.
“There’s space to step into,” said first-year coach Cheryl Reeve, who is replacing Dawn Staley. “There’s available opportunity to fill a void. It could be a skill set or leadership. … We’re fortunate here in the U.S. in that we’re able to have this next wave and next generation of talent. Now you can’t inject the experience part. That’s just something we have to go through and build that.
“But I’m excited for players like Breanna Stewart. Now as you peel away what she had as a long player, she’s no longer a young player. She’s the most experienced in terms of this competition. Peel away Sue and (Diana), who she’s been able to lean on, and now it’s Stewie. Well, that’s a tremendous growth opportunity. I’m really looking forward to see how she can impact our team in that way.”
In addition to Stewart and Loyd, the 12-player USA team includes former Washington Huskies star Kelsey Plum, Sabrina Ionescu, Ariel Atkins, Chelsea Gray, Wilson, Kahleah Copper, Alyssa Thomas, Shakira Austin, Betnijah Laney and Brionna Jones.
Only five members (Stewart, Loyd, Wilson, Atkins and Gray) of the USA team that won gold at last year’s Tokyo Olympics are playing in the World Cup, which puts more pressure on the 28-year-old Stewart, who is the longest-tenured member with four gold medals.
“I’ve had a lot of USA Basketball experience since I started when I was 14,” said Stewart, who won the Olympic tournament MVP last year and the FIBA World Cup MVP in 2018. “It’s my job to lead by example but also use my experience to help my teammates. I feel that if I don’t do that, it’s kind of selfish of me because I think there’s so many ways that I can help without having the basketball in my hands.”
It will also be Stewart’s first game without Bird.
“It’s definitely hitting home,” Stewart said. “Because we had training camps throughout this year where they haven’t been there it’s weird. Every time you show up you’re kind of used to them being there.
“But it’s a great opportunity for a lot of these newer, younger players to get to this national team level and make their own imprint. … What Sue, D and Syl have done with USA Basketball has been amazing and a legacy within its own right, and now it’s time for other players to create their own legacies.”
USA begins the tournament Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. PT against Belgium before facing Puerto Rico, China, Korea and Bosnia/Herzegovina in Group A pool action that concludes Sept. 26.
Reeve was unsure if Wilson, Gray, Plum, Thomas and Jones would be available for the first two games considering they competed in the WNBA Finals, which concluded Sunday.
Traditionally, USA has overwhelmed opponents with a deep and talented roster. Despite the possibility of having just seven players for the tournament opener, Reeve hopes to maintain an up-tempo pace that features Stewart.
“Whatever numbers we have, that’s what we’re going to go with,” Stewart said. “We’re going to make sure that our schemes are right and our scouting report is right and not look at the disadvantages of (our limited roster), but the advantages of it and really make sure that we set the tone with this tournament.
“Starting off with Belgium is not an easy task and it gives us a lot of opportunities to grow, especially for players that haven’t had a lot of experience here. But we know we have reinforcements coming, and we just need to hold it down until then.”
Stewart and Loyd are two of five Storm players participating at the World Cup, including Gabby Williams (France) and Ezi Magbegor and Stephanie Talbot (Australia).
Storm coach Noelle Quinn is an assistant for Canada, while former Storm star Lauren Jackson has come out of retirement to play for Australia.
“We had a little gathering with all of the teams last night, so to be able to see all of the Storm people whether it was Noey, Lauren, Steph, Ezi or Gabby was amazing,” Stewart said. “It’s just going to be obviously competitive, but really fun to go against them. It’s amazing that Lauren Jackson is back playing after all that she’s gone through. And especially to be playing in Sydney, in Australia. I hope that everybody shows out for her and shows up to support.”