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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Why Team USA women’s hoops will have another golden moment in Rio

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 25: Geno Auriemma

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 25: Geno Auriemma head coach of the USA Basketball Women's National talks to his team during the second half of the game at Galen Center on July 25, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) Photo Credit: Getty Images/Jayne Kamin-Oncea

GREENBURGH, N.Y.

No one wants to say it. But they all know it’s true.

None of the members of the United States Olympic women’s basketball team wants to curse themselves, to make a prediction that could come back to haunt them. No one wants to mess with history before it unfolds.

But the bottom line is Team USA has about zero chance of coming back from the Rio de Janeiro Games without a gold.

No country in the Summer Olympics has dominated a team sport the way the U.S. women have dominated basketball during the past 20 years. Since winning a bronze medal in 1992, Team USA has won 41 consecutive games and five straight gold medals. During that stretch, the Americans have won by nearly 30 points a game, and only one team stayed within single digits of them.

And here’s the really scary thing: This year’s team is so talented, so deep, so confident that it could be the best of them all. It’s a team that is not so much competing with other countries as it is a team competing with its own history, using past U.S. teams as a yardstick.

“It’s like you try to think about how good we were in London four years ago, and how can we get better,” Diana Taurasi said after the team’s practice Saturday at the Liberty practice facility. “If we do it right, we can get better.”

That London team generally was considered the best yet. Its only hiccup on the way to the gold medal in 2012 occurred when Australia took a four-point halftime lead in the semifinals. It marked the first time in 12 years that a U.S. women’s team had trailed at a half. The Americans ended up winning that game by 13 points before beating France, 85-50, in the gold-medal match.

Australia remains one of Team USA’s strongest opponents, and the two will meet at 4 p.m. Sunday at Madison Square Garden for a final exhibition game before heading to Rio.

This year’s U.S. team mixes youth — newcomers Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart — with established veterans. Three players — Taurasi, Tamika Catchings and Syosset’s Sue Bird — will be playing for their fourth straight gold medal.

“In some ways, I think this team can be the best ever,” said U.S. coach Geno Auriemma, who also coached the team that won the gold in London. “I’m sure every coach in every era thinks their team is the best, and the next era might be better than this one. But for right now, the combination of the talent, the experience, the versatility of this team — this may be it. But, of course, we have to prove it.

“The 2012 team in London proved they were the best team by far. This team still has to prove it.”

Auriemma, of course, is the perfect coach for such a dominant team. His Connecticut Huskies are the bullies of women’s basketball, having won four straight titles while beating their opponents by an absurd average margin of 39.7 points. This year’s team has five former UConn stars: Bird, Taurasi, Stewart, Tina Charles and Maya Moore.

“This team has a chance to be one of the deeper teams. We’re going to wear teams down,” Bird said. “That’s where our strength lies. We have the ability for over the course of a 40-minute game to really wear teams down. I would put this team in the same category as London. I know coach Auriemma thinks we can be the best team ever. I have to say that we can only talk that way if we win a gold medal. So ask me in a couple of weeks.”

OK, we will. And — if this team dominates the way everyone expects it to — the women must verbally claim their place in history.

There is nothing that American sports fans love more than to celebrate a dominant winner, to celebrate the fact that we stand head and shoulders above the rest. This is the sport that features the clearest separation between the United States and the rest of the field. That includes the U.S. men’s basketball team.

They need to cash in on that dominance.

DOWN UNDER: FAIR DINKUMS

Australia, really the only serious challenger to Team USA, will be in search of their in search of a sixth straight Games medal. Laura Hodges could become Australia’s third hoops athlete to win four Olympic medals in Rio. Liz Cambage — the first women to dunk in an Olympics game — Erin Phillips and Rachel Jarry are playing in their second Games and provide veteran leadership.

MEDAL METTLE

The Aussies have won either a silver or bronze at every Olympics since 1996. France was the silver medalist in 2012. Other candidates for a medal could be Serbia, which won the European championship, Spain and Canada.

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