USA women’s basketball peaking at perfect time as semifinals arrive

Australia women’s basketball coach Sandy Brondello hugged Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi — three players she coaches with the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA — after the U.S. women’s dominant 79-55 Olympic quarterfinal victory on Wednesday. She will be happy to reunite with the American stars once the WNBA season resumes, but in the Tokyo Olympics, they were part of the U.S. hammer that crushed the Aussies’ medal dreams — and sent a message that the U.S. women had hit their stride at just the right time in this tournament.

A fast start — something that had been an issue in group play — put them up 26-12 after the first quarter, and they held the Aussies at arm’s length most of the remainder of the game. Now Team USA faces Serbia in the semifinals on Friday (12:40 a.m. ET).

What has stood out so far about the U.S. women’s quest in Japan, and what do they need to win a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal? ESPN’s Kelly Cohen, Myron Medcalf, Kevin Pelton and Mechelle Voepel break down Team USA in Tokyo.

Should the U.S. women be concerned about their defense? How troubling is it that they trailed at the end of the first quarter in all three group games, and gave up 30 first-quarter points against Japan?

Kevin Pelton: A tiny bit. The U.S. women’s big frontcourts with Breanna Stewart at small forward next to two traditional post players in Brittney Griner and A’ja Wilson have occasionally looked vulnerable to smaller units that can attack them using quickness on the perimeter.

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Still, I think hot early shooting by Japan made the problem look worse than it was. Japan went 6-of-10 from 3-point range in the opening quarter, but Team USA didn’t overreact and Japan cooled off thereafter, making just four of its final 28 attempts beyond the arc.

And the Americans solved their biggest weakness from group play — coming up with few turnovers — by forcing 21 against Australia.

Myron Medcalf: I think they should be concerned about their effort and focus at the start of games. Against Australia, it was clear they were done with the uncertainty and instead decided to put an emphasis on hedging on screens, disrupting passing lanes and altering shots in the first quarter. Griner was aggressive as she challenged shots in the paint. Stewart’s agility limited penetration for Australia on ball screens.

When Team USA utilizes its versatility on defense, it’s difficult to beat. Against France on Monday, you didn’t see that early in the game. There were just too many open looks. The Australia win reminded everyone that this team is ferocious when it’s focused. But it also can get exposed when it doesn’t have that mindset at tipoff.

Mechelle Voepel: Television analyst Kara Lawson was succinct during the quarterfinal: If the United States plays up to par defensively, the Americans won’t lose. The Australians shot just 30% overall from the field against the United States, 38% from the paint. What was thought to be a potentially dangerous game for the Americans was their smoothest victory thus far in the Olympic tournament.

The better start also allowed the United States to utilize its depth, which helped the defense. Coach Dawn Staley felt a lot more confident spreading out minutes, and so every U.S. player on the court seemed fresh.

With the change from five preliminary games to three for these Olympics, depth has been less of an advantage for the Americans. With all teams having more recovery time, it was harder for Team USA to wear down opponents. But against Australia, it was more like the “attacking in waves” style the Americans are known for, offensively and defensively.

Is Team USA’s biggest challenge going forward internal or external? Is it an opponent that lies ahead, or something the team needs to fix, improve or avoid?How deep is the U.S. roster? Tina Charles, the WNBA’s leading scorer this season, comes off the bench. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Pelton: Internal. The opponents we expected to present the toughest challenges for the United States have dealt with their own issues. Australia couldn’t convert an upset of the U.S. in an exhibition in Las Vegas into any success in Tokyo, and the two strongest teams in the group stages (Belgium and Spain) both got upset in the quarterfinals. Potential final opponent France is the only remaining team that can match up physically with Team USA, which beat France 93-82 on Monday to wrap up group play.

Kelly Cohen: It’s definitely internal. In the games in which Team USA has struggled, I think it could be traced to the rotations. The Australia game aside, because that was a blowout, I would like to see more Jewell Loyd and more Napheesa Collier. The U.S. women’s bench is stacked, and seeing more of those exceptional players have a chance to contribute makes me wonder if previous games would not have been so close.

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Medcalf: Internal. This team is bringing Tina Charles, who is averaging 26.3 PPG for the Washington Mystics this season, off the bench. Team USA has an abundance of talent. No opponent in the world can match its depth. There has been only one question for the U.S. women to answer each game: How long will it take for this team to wake up? Because once they’re dialed-in, they’re not finishing second to anyone.

Voepel: There is not a lot that’s external anymore that should cause the Americans much trouble. Going back a few weeks to Liz Cambage withdrawing from playing with Australia in the Olympics, the hurdles potentially in the way of the United States winning have gone down. What’s left? Just not tripping on the way to the finish line, which sometimes can be more difficult than it sounds. But probably not with this group, because if there were any lingering confidence questions, they were answered with such a strong performance in the quarterfinals.

Which U.S. player have you been most impressed with?

Medcalf: This might be the last Olympics for some of the players on the roster, but the future is clearly in good hands with Wilson. She has been the most consistent and effective player on the roster. In her first Olympics, Wilson has definitely made a statement. Even in limited minutes against Australia (3-for-6 from the field, 4-for-4 from the charity stripe, 10 points), she was efficient. Wilson, who turns 25 on Sunday, has emerged as one of the anchors for 2024 and beyond.

Pelton: Even when Stewart wasn’t dominating offensively, Staley’s reluctance to take her off the court — she averaged 36 MPG in the three group games — confirmed Stewie’s importance. I’ve also been impressed with how quickly Wilson has fit in her Olympic debut. She was the best U.S. player in the group stage.

Breanna Stewart, right, and A’ja Wilson, center, have been Team USA’s two best players in Tokyo. AP Photo/Eric Gay

Cohen: Stewart is usually the best player whenever she steps on the court. Stewie aside, I’ve been super impressed with Wilson. I’ve also enjoyed watching Chelsea Gray make some of the passes she has made, and I’ve been impressed by Charles still grinding out there in every game.

Voepel: It’s unanimous: Wilson and Stewart are Team USA’s superstars, and could face off for the WNBA title again this season with the Las Vegas Aces and Seattle Storm like they did last year.

But kudos also to Griner, who in her second Olympics has been very productive and reliable. The center is averaging 13.5 points on 68.8% shooting from the field, along with 6.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots. It was a tough 2020 for Griner, who left the WNBA’s bubble early for mental health reasons. But Griner came back this WNBA season saying she was in a good frame of mind, and that has continued through these Olympics.

What adjustments would you make to playing time?

Pelton: The early lead certainly helped, but I thought Staley struck a nice balance in the Australia game with her rotation. I particularly liked seeing some of Ariel Atkins in the first half since three-guard lineups with Atkins provide more shooting and could be valuable at some point in the medal rounds.

Ariel Atkins, one of six players on Team USA making her Olympic debut, could give the U.S. women the option to play a three-guard lineup. Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Voepel: Staley was aware that there were questions about how minutes were distributed in the first three games, and I think she was even questioning herself a bit about it. But the U.S. women made it easier on her Wednesday because they were so sharp from the start.

Atkins can make an impact if she gets some time, and she also should play an even bigger role in next year’s FIBA World Cup and then the Paris Olympics in 2024. You could say the same about Collier, but with as good as the more veteran post play has been these Olympics, this trip is more about watching and learning for her.

What should Team USA expect from Serbia in the semifinals?

Pelton: Balanced scoring. Serbia’s leading scorer, Jelena Brooks, ranks just 14th in overall Olympic scoring at 13.5 PPG. But Serbia has two other players — Yvonne Anderson and Sonja Vasic, the latter set to retire at the end of the Olympics — averaging double-figure scoring, and a fourth — Tina Krajisnik, 9.8 PPG — not far from joining them.

Voepel: The Serbs have really good size and experience, and they’re a really cohesive unit. Serbia went undefeated in the EuroBasket tournament in June, beating France in the final behind 18 points from Anderson. A native of Arkansas, she was a guard for the University of Texas from 2008 to ’12, and is a naturalized Serbian citizen, which allows her to compete for that country. Her father, Mike Anderson, is a longtime college men’s coach who is currently at St. John’s after previous stops as head coach at UAB, Missouri and Arkansas.

Serbia’s success has been pretty recent. The Serbs won a bronze in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, getting the country’s first Olympic medal in women’s basketball in its first Olympic appearance. Along with the 2021 EuroBasket title, the Serbs also won that event in 2015. Their best finish in the FIBA World Cup was eighth in 2014; they didn’t qualify in 2018.

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