By Frank Bonner II | @Frank_Bonner2
Sports Capital Journalism Program
TENERIFE, Spain — The USA Basketball Women’s National Team will begin its quest toward a third consecutive FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup when it takes on Senegal to start the preliminary round at 1 p.m. EDT on Saturday.
It would be a historic moment for the USA if coach Dawn Staley can lead this group of 12 players to the country’s first three-peat and an unprecedented 10th World Cup gold medal overall.
The best national teams in women’s basketball have arrived here, the largest of the Canary Islands archipelago, approximately 300 kilometers from Africa. The USA will open play in the capital of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, in the 3,600-seat Palacio Municipal de Deportes, a cozy gym a short distance from the Atlantic Ocean.
Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird has already set a USA record by making her fifth trip to the World Cup, and Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi, another University of Connecticut alum, is making her fourth appearance. The USA also brought some fresh faces, including the Connecticut Sun’s Layshia Clarendon, who is playing in her first World Cup.
Clarendon has been training with the team since early September. She’s played in each of the club’s exhibition games in Columbia, South Carolina; Bridgeport, Connecticut; Washington, D.C. and Antibes, France — all in the last 16 days.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Clarendon said of the preparation. “It’s definitely a little bit of a grueling process. It gives me a lot of respect and perspective for these veterans who’ve done it for years in and years out.”
It comes as no surprise that the USA is at the top of the FIBA power rankings announced Thursday. The USA is joined by No. 8 China and unranked Latvia and Senegal in the preliminary round, and may not face a major test until it reaches a semifinal.
The USA was undefeated in 2014, winning six times by an average of 28.8 points. But in a semifinal, Australia was within six points early in the fourth quarter before the USA reached the final with a 82-70 victory.
Group C may be the most competitive of the four. It includes No. 2-ranked Spain, No. 6 Belgium (in its first World Cup appearance), No. 7 Japan and unranked Puerto Rico.
The three ranked Group C teams have a chance to advance into the quarterfinal round if the second and third-place teams win play-in games on Sept. 26. The winner of the group would automatically advance.
The USA and Spain could meet in a semifinal, a rematch of the 2014 World Cup gold medal game, if both teams finish first in the group phase. The USA defeated Spain, 77-64, for the 2014 gold medal, led by Maya Moore’s 18 points.
But Spain has been on an upward trend. The host team won its first medal, a bronze, in 2010 before taking silver in 2014. The advantage of playing on its home soil could help lift the intensity in a possible rematch against the USA.
Staley, who was named National Team head coach from 2017 through 2020 in March, 2017, said she hasn’t given much thought to playing Spain. Her focus is solely on the progress of her players.
““I think if we start thinking about what other people pose against us, we’ve lost the battle,” Staley said. “Because we’re thinking less about preparation for how we need to perform as a cohesive unit.”
Staley also recognizes that the rest of the world is getting better. One of her concerns is the possibility of shooting droughts. Another is the impact of the recently-concluded WNBA season, if veterans can’t play as many minutes as expected and less experienced players are needed in unfamiliar roles.
“No matter how well you’ve played in the WNBA and overseas, this is a different type of basketball and the target is always on your back,” Staley said. “You have to perform as a cohesive unit.”
The USA is used to playing with a target after earning nine gold medals and 12 medals overall. Both of the USA’s bronze medals, in 1994 and 2006, came after winning back-to-back golds. The goal, this time, is to break that cycle.