By Scott Mammoser
The U.S. women’s basketball national team is going into the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Serbia with nothing to lose. That’s because it has already punched its ticket to the Tokyo Olympics by virtue of winning the 2018 FIBA World Cup.
However, that doesn’t mean that the team isn’t taking the experience valuably.
“It’s important to cherish every opportunity,” U.S. forward Nneka Ogwumike told High Post Hoops. “We want to go into Tokyo with the ultimate cohesiveness and readiness. It’s important to understand your value and that you are there for a reason. I learned that at previous World Championships. I’m going to do my best, with the goal of winning.”
The U.S. begins its three-game event on Thursday in Belgrade, facing host country Serbia. It will then meet Mozambique on Feb. 8 and Nigeria on Feb. 9, with two of the three opponents joining it in Japan in July.
“Serbia, in particular, ensures a lot of toughness,” said Team USA assistant coach Cheryl Reeve. “They space the floor and use triple penetration. Nigeria is always challenging, with lots of pressing. The biggest thing is you have to be adaptable for the next opponent.”
Serbia, ranked seventh in the world, is the reigning bronze medalist at both EuroBasket and the Rio Olympics. Both Ana Dabovic and Sonja Petrovic have played in the WNBA, with Dabovic winning the title with the Sparks in 2016.
Nigeria is 16th in the FIBA rankings, was a quarterfinalist at the previous World Cup in 2018, and it won the past two AfroBasket competitions. The team last qualified for the Olympics at Athens in 2004, but features names from U.S. colleges: Promise Amukamara (Arizona State), Evelyn Akhator (Kentucky), Adaora Elonu (Texas A&M), and Aisha Mohammed (Virginia).
Mozambique is ranked 43rd in the world and played in the 2014 World Cup.
New additions joining the U.S. team for the trip to Serbia will be Ariel Atkins and Tiffany Mitchell, while Diamond DeShields and Diana Taurasi will not be competing. Sue Bird, Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner are among the mainstays on the roster that will suit up in the Balkan nation.
“I think there are a lot of varieties of skill sets,” added Reeve, who is a co-coach with Dan Hughes for the event, while Dawn Staley works with her South Carolina team. “For the young players, there has been a healthy respect for the veterans and what to expect. Our purpose is to see players and evaluate them. They’re all vying for a part of the national team.”
One of the veterans, although still seeking her first Olympic berth is Ogwumike, the former MVP of the WNBA.
“I bring energy and consistency to the front court position,” Ogwumike said. “When you come in, you feel like you’re on an All-Star team. We’re all great, and our greatness will show together. We sacrifice and do it as best as we can.”
The U.S. team wrapped up a tour of playing college teams, with games at the University of Connecticut and the University of Louisville before the qualifying tournament. Despite coming out on top of UConn, 79-64, the national team blew a double-digit lead and allowed the Huskies to go on a 17-2 run and hold an advantage in the early fourth quarter.
“We spent some time reflecting and watching video of ourselves,” Reeve said. “We were slow on defense and in transition plays (against UConn). All the coaches, we know these teams are really good, and the depth is incredible. The top 10 teams (in women’s NCAA Basketball) are really well coached. Our best competition is stateside, and they are the next generation, carrying into the WNBA.”
Reeve also noted that each arena has been a packed house, which posed a great challenge.
In addition to the group that contains the U.S., there are three other groups of four that will produce three qualifying teams each. At Ostend, Belgium, the host team will compete with Canada and Sweden for two spots, with Japan already qualified as the Olympic host. In Bourges, France, the French are joined with Brazil, Australia and Puerto Rico. Also in Belgrade are China, Korea, Great Britain, and Spain composing the final group.
“We’re learning that we’ll retain our prowess for our chemistry,” Ogwumike added. “We have to maintain our poise and develop our chemistry. We took away (from the college tour) that we have some things to work on. We want to be able to maintain our goals, while also getting better. Our main goal is chemistry.”
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