RIO DE JANEIRO — There was a calm, relaxed atmosphere at the final practice for the U.S. women’s basketball team. Maybe it’s because injured guard Sue Bird was able to participate. Or maybe because many of the players have been in this position before — a win away from another Olympic title.
“I understand it’s a gold medal game, we’ve approached it like any other game,” said Bird, a Syosset native who has helped the United States win the last three golds at the Olympics. “At the start of this entire month, every single practice and game we approached it like it was a gold medal game. Today’s no different.”
The Americans will play Spain on Saturday in search of a sixth consecutive gold. Spain has guaranteed itself its first-ever Olympic medal in women’s basketball.
It looks as if the United States will have Bird back for the title game. She missed the semifinal win over France as she was recovering from a sprained right knee capsule suffered in the previous game. She said she felt much better Friday and it showed. After taking part in practice, Bird went through a hard workout when it was finished to test the right knee. She stopped short of saying she definitely would play Saturday.
“I can’t give you an answer for tomorrow,” Bird said, smiling. “I can be happy with the way things have been going. Long term is great, short term is getting better.”
Bird said the pain is down to about a “one or two out of 10.” But she isn’t going to push it if she doesn’t feel comfortable and has the utmost confidence in her teammates if she can’t play.
“I’m not going to be dumb about it. Our team isn’t built around one person, it’s built around 12,” she said. “As they showed yesterday, it doesn’t matter who’s out there, we have a really good team. I’m not going to do anything stupid.”
Coach Geno Auriemma, who worked with Bird for four years at UConn and now eight with USA Basketball, said the decision on whether she plays is up to Bird.
“She’ll wake up tomorrow morning and tell us how she feels and we’ll go with that,” he said. “Whatever Sue says, just having her on the floor, regardless the amount of time we can call on her, believe me the comfort level with our team and coaches went up 100 percent.”
The U.S. dominated Spain in the preliminary round, winning by 40 points. The Americans also beat Spain in the 2014 world championship title game. Still, they aren’t taking anything for granted.
“They are really, really good,” Diana Taurasi said. “It’s going to be a hard fought battle and they have been playing really well since we beat them.”
The test for Spain will be to do what no team has been able to do in Rio: put together a full game against the United States. France trailed by four at the half on Thursday and still lost by 19.
This version of the U.S. women’s Olympic team has been simply incredible. It has kept the streak started by the 1996 team going and now the Americans have won 48 consecutive contests. They’ve won the seven games in the Olympics by an average of nearly 40 points and are putting up 102.3 points a contest — just a hair behind the record set by the ‘96 squad.
Saturday’s contest will be the last Olympic game for Tamika Catchings, who is retiring at the end of the WNBA season next month. Bird and Diana Taurasi also have hinted that this probably will be their Olympic finale as well.
“That’s the elephant in the room that no one is talking about,” Taurasi said. “We’re really focused on the game at hand and not what lies ahead after that.”