Team USA women’s basketball’s first Olympic group stage game felt eerily similar to their subpar exhibition games. The Americans beat Nigeria, 81-72, but the margin was way too close for comfort. Turnovers and a lack of chemistry were noticeable for the full 40 minutes save for an explosive 23-0 second-quarter stretch, and the game never felt completely theirs. That’s despite Nigeria missing three stars it’d hoped to have in Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike, and Elizabeth Williams.
It’s way too soon to panic, and Team USA is still the favorite by far to win the gold medal. But let’s talk about what we learned from their first Olympic game.
1. A’ja Wilson is unstoppable in the post
This is an important one. While most of the first-time American Olympians played a smaller role against Nigeria, Wilson was the star. Her 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting were a game-high and her six offensive rebounds (13 total boards) helped bail out some ugly halfcourt possessions. The 24-year-old reigning WNBA MVP was ready for the moment which is a great sign for Team USA’s current run and future appearances.
It is noteworthy to point out Wilson found a ton of her success playing as a small-ball big. Dawn Staley starts Wilson next to Brittney Griner, but because they operate the same space, she’s prone to drawing a second help-defender. We’ll see if Team USA makes any adjustments going forward and staggering their bigs a bit more.
2. Diana Taurasi’s return was crucial
Taurasi missed all three exhibition games with a hip injury, and also missed 10 WNBA games to a fracture in her sternum. Getting back on the court in time for the Olympics was always the expectation but when and how she’d look were question marks. The good news is Taurasi started and looked sharp from the field. She wasn’t hesitant to shoot and scored 10 points on six shots (hitting two 3-pointers), and helped kickstart the offense for Team USA after a nervy start to the game.
Getting the leading scorer in WNBA history back into the lineup was a must for the Americans. Taurasi will never struggle to get a jumper off.
3. Nigeria’s full-court trap bothered USA way more than it should have
It was tough to watch how often Team USA struggled to get the ball past halfcourt. Credit Nigeria’s tenacity on made buckets and defensive rebounds, but the Americans really, really had problems running in transition. They turned the ball over 25 times!
Going forward, the team’s bigs may have to take a few dribbles before searching for a guard — or at least start throwing pass-fakes. Keeping the ball high can also aid referees in calling fouls, but the sloppiness has to go as competition ramps up. They’ve turned the ball over 63 times in their last three games.
4. This team has a lot of work to do
Few parts of this game felt great. Nigeria made a late fourth-quarter run to cut the deficit to single digits in the final three minutes. If that felt odd, it’s because it hasn’t happened in a while. The 2016 team had a cohesiveness that allowed the Americans to go 8-0 and win by an average of 38.5 points. No game was closer than 26 points. This was the first single digit win for Team USA since 2004 against Russia.
Hopefully, over the next week, America finds its rhythm. It’s only going to get harder from here.
5. This was win No. 50 in a row for USA
We’re tough on this team because we expect so much from them, but this was the Americans’ 50th straight win in Olympic play which is a wild achievement worth celebrating. We’ll see if they can keep the streak alive for seven more games and win a seventh straight gold.