There was a point late in the first half of Tuesday’s Olympic women’s basketball quarterfinal when the U.S. had just a two-point lead, 48-46, over Japan. The U.S. went on an eight-point run to build a more comfortable 10-point lead at halftime.
It was a bit of a shock, considering the U.S. had been so dominant in group stage play, winning its five games by an average of 40.8 points.
Japan, playing a fast and fun style of basketball, closed to within 56-50 early in the third quarter. But then the U.S. shifted into another gear, building a commanding 81-59 lead after three quarters and eventually cruising to a dominating 110-64 win.
In a matter of minutes, the U.S. turned a competitive game into a decisive rout. It was the U.S.’s fifth time in six games scoring over 100 points in the Rio Olympics. And the U.S. outscored Japan 54-18 in the second half without starting point guard and Syosset native Sue Bird, who sat out the entire second half with a right knee injury. In the one game the U.S. did not score 100 points, the Americans still beat Canada by 30 points, 81-51.
So, at this point, it’s time to start considering this group as perhaps the greatest team in U.S. women’s basketball history. But, to be fair, the U.S. still has two games to go to claim gold, even though the road got somewhat easier after Australia’s stunning quarterfinal loss to Serbia on Tuesday.
The U.S. is averaging 105 points per game in six games, while shooting a mind-boggling 59 percent from the field and 45.9 percent from the 3-point line. The points per game and shooting percentages lead all women’s teams in these Olympics. Australia, the No. 2-ranked women’s team in world, is second in points per game (78.5) and shooting percentage (46.2). China is second in 3-point shooting, connecting on 39.4 percent of its attempts.
If there is a weakness for the U.S., it’s been at the free-throw line. The U.S. is hitting 79 percent, sixth best in the Rio Olympics. Japan made 86 percent of its free throws in six games.
The 1996 Olympic team is a good measuring stick for the 2016 team in terms of being the greatest U.S. women’s basketball team. The 1996 team, featuring Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Teresa Edwards, Jennifer Azzi and Rebecca Lobo, to name a few, was influential in many ways and dominated the Atlanta Games. The 1996 team started a string of five straight Olympic gold medals (the 2016 team is going for six straight) and helped start the WNBA.
Let’s break down the statistics. We’ll include the 2008 team, which featured current U.S. team members Diana Taurasi, Tamika Catchings, Seimone Augustus, Sylvia Fowles and Bird. That Olympic team was also very dominant.
1996 team – 8-0 overall, 5-0 in group stage (gold medal)
2008 team – 8-0 overall, 5-0 in group stage (gold medal)
2016 team – 6-0 overall, 5-0 in group stage (in semifinals)
Points per game
1996 team – 102.4 (eight games)
2008 team – 86.1 (eight games)
2016 team – 105 (six games)
Points allowed per game
1996 – 73.8 (eight games)
2008 – 56.6 (eight games)
2016 – 52.7 (six games)
Average margin of victory
1996 – 31.8 (eight games)
2008 – 37.6 (eight games)
2016 – 41.7 (six games)
Games over 100 points
1996 – 4 out of 8
2008 – 2 out of 8
2016 – 5 out of 6 so far
1996 – 15 (108-93 over Japan in quarterfinals)
2008 – 15 (67-52 over Russia in semifinals)
2016 – 26 (110-84 over Serbia in group play)
Statistically, give the 2016 team the edge. In terms of talent, the 1996 and 2016 teams both have great rosters. However, the 2016 seems to have it all with crazy depth and versatility. Plus, the 2016 team has scorers (five players are averaging 10 or more points), shooters (Diana Taurasi, the U.S.’s leading scorer at 15 points per game, is shooting 58 percent from the field and 61 percent from the 3-point line), defenders (Brittney Griner is tied for the tournament lead with 1.8 blocks per game), and distributors (seven Americans are in the top 25 overall in assists).
But the 2016 team can’t truly be compared to the 1996 team – or any other U.S. women’s basketball team in history – without winning a gold medal. That journey continues Thursday against France in the semifinals.