By Sophia Cheng
On a night when questions and feelings of disappointment arose around Tokyo for the US women’s gymnastics, softball, and soccer programs, the US women’s basketball team served as a bright spot, recording its 50th consecutive win with a 81-72 victory in Tuesday’s opening game against Nigeria.
Arguably the biggest storyline came from a player who wasn’t playing for either team, despite having the skill and dual US-Nigerian citizenship. Citing a recent injury, USA basketball shockingly cut Stanford alum Nneka Ogwumike ’12, from the US Olympic squad despite being a core member of the national team in recent years, making her the only WNBA MVP who’s never made an Olympic team. Feeling betrayed and shocked, Ogwumike applied to play for the Nigerian national team instead, but FIBA, the global basketball governing body, denied her request because of her longtime involvement with USA basketball. This meant that instead of helping the US on their quest for gold or trying to lift Nigeria to its first medal in basketball ever, she stayed at home.
Without the superior skills of Ogwumike, Ezinne Kalu stepped up and led the Nigerians with 16 points, shooting 6-for-11 from the field and 4-for-5 at the free-throw line. Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson, who graduated from the University of South Carolina, led the US team with 19 points and 13 rebounds in her Olympic debut.
The game started out with a rocky first quarter consisting of eight turnovers and fouls by the American women, who ended up trailing 20-17. According to Wilson, head coach Dawn Staley’s words of advice for the team were to do whatever it took to win. Clearly, the players took this to heart; after lagging behind 25-20 early in the second quarter, four-time Olympic gold medalist Sue Bird threw a pass at basketball legend Diana Taurasi and the latter hit a jumper, firing up the team. From then on, it was smooth sailing.
Bird, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest passers of all time, assisted Wilson’s jumper after a defensive rebound by Taurasi, and they went on a 23-0 run before the halftime buzzer rang. With her 13 assists, Bird managed to surpass her previous Olympic record of nine in one game, and also reached 102 total Olympic assists, accumulated over the course of 20 years.
Although Taurasi and Bird are unequivocally the stars of this team with their vast experience and legendary skills, Tuesday’s game also showcased the standout talents of several other players. 6’9 Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, who is only one of 11 players ever to have won an Olympic gold medal, FIBA World Cup gold medal, WNBA title, and NCAA title, racked up 13 points and 10 rebounds. In addition, Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart and 6’6 Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles added nine points apiece and totaled 16 rebounds for Team USA.
Meanwhile, 6’4 center Victoria Macaulay played a well-rounded game for Nigeria, scoring 11 points and shooting 5-for-6 from the free throw line. Both point guard Promise Amukamara and forward Adaora Elonu, who won the 2011 NCAA Championship with Texas A&M, had 10 points for Nigeria, with Amukamara also adding three rebounds and four assists.
Team USA is scheduled to play Japan on Thursday, July 29 at 1:40 p.m. JST, or Wednesday at 9:40 p.m. PST.