For the last quarter-century, the United States women’s basketball national team has helped prepare itself for the World Championships and Olympic Games by touring the United States for a series of exhibition games against top-ranked Division I teams.
These excursions have always been as much about public relations as they are about basketball. Team USA loves bringing its players back to the college campuses where they became stars as a gift to their fans.
In terms of the game itself, it usually turns into something akin to the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals. Seriously, how could a bunch of college kids beat a collection of the greatest basketball players in the world?
Well, if you were among the 11,530 fans at Saturday’s game between the USA and the University of Oregon, you saw exactly how it could happen.
Ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason women’s basketball poll, with the nation’s top player, Sabrina Ionescu on their side, the Ducks handed the national team just the second loss ever against a college team. Final score: 93-86.
“I think before the game and the week leading up to it, watching the other (Team USA) games, we knew that they’re the best team in the world, the best players in the world,” Ionescu said. “So we were just going to try to stay within 20. As the game started and even before the game, we were like, ‘Let’s give it our best shot and see where we are. Let’s not worry about the score, let’s not worry about winning or losing, let’s just play Duck basketball.’
“I believed that we could do it. I never thought that I’d say we beat the best players in the world, and I think if we played again the outcome might be totally different, but we’re really proud of this team and our coaching staff and what we did tonight.”
The Americans haven’t lost an international game since Russia beat it in the semifinals of the 2006 world championships. And its only other loss to a college was to powerhouse Tennessee in 1999. That team was coached by Hall of Famer Pat Summitt. Until Saturday, the USA had won 20 straight collegiate exhibitions and 43 of 44.
“When we came out that third quarter, which is the quarter they’ve put their foot down and stomped on people, and we played them toe-to-toe and took the lead through there, I thought that was huge,” Oregon coach Kelly Graves said. “It showed a lot of character. … I thought once we started that third quarter and obviously build a little lead then yeah, if you have a chance to win the game you’re going to win the game, exhibition or no. This was an amazing opportunity. … I think you have an opportunity like that, you go for it.”
This was the fourth game of tour that began at Stanford nine days ago. They had also defeated Oregon State and Texas A&M prior to the Oregon game.
Ionescu scored 25 of her 30 points in the second half to lead the Ducks. She made a layup at the end of the third quarter that gave the Ducks a one-point lead and kicked off a 15-2 run. Her teammate, Satou Sabally, added 25 points.
“There were a lot of positives that we are going to take from this game,” Ionescu said. “But there are also a lot of negatives that we need to improve on and work on. Any team that’s going to watch that game is going to be able to try to pick us apart and do what they did.”
To be fair to the national team, it was without many of their top post players, like Tina Charles, Brittney Griner, and Elena Delle Donne, who just led the Washington Mystics to their first WNBA championship.
Still, the USA had legendary stars such as Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi on their team. Ionescu is expected to be the first overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft. Aside from her, Oregon’s roster was filled with just a bunch of good complementary players.
“I think every team has to, no matter who you are, go into a game confident,” Sabally said. “As the game proceeded, we kind of balled really well. The shots were falling, and then we were like, ‘We can really win this game. Let’s go!’ ”
Nneka Ogwumike had 19 points and 14 rebounds for the United States. Taurasi added 17 points and Sylvia Fowles had 11. But the Ducks shots 50 percent from the field and even out-rebounded the national team.
“Overall, the atmosphere was amazing,” Bird said. “This is what we wanted on this college tour. It just goes to show that you’re never too old to learn some lessons. This time we had to learn it the hard way, but congratulations to Oregon for playing a great game.
“I think the difference with Oregon was, they never quit. Some of the other teams, I think eventually we kind of wore them down a little bit. But not this team.”