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U.S. women’s basketball looking to define an era and continue a legacy

U.S. center Brittney Griner puts a spin move on Serbia's Dragana Stankovic.
U.S. center Brittney Griner puts a spin move on Serbia’s Dragana Stankovic during the second half of the Americans’ 79-59 semifinal win Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Serbia was looking for a spark; instead, they made a dream come true.

Down big early to the U.S. women’s basketball team, 19-year-old Angela Dugalic checked in to make her Olympics debut, one of her final chances to compete in these Games before she plays for UCLA this winter.

In her country’s previous four games, she was engaged from the bench, cheering as the Serbians muscled their way into the semifinals. Around the village, she’d been stunned at how normal so many superstars would act.

The U.S. men’s basketball team dominated in the second half against Australia to advance to the gold-medal game at the Tokyo Olympics.

Naomi Osaka and Luka Doncic both seemed so relaxed. Novak Djokovic spoke to her Serbian teammates with so much kindness that it felt like everyone had been friends for years.

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There were stars everywhere. And Friday, Dugalic got to see another wave of them all at once.

There was Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, Brittney Griner, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. Superstars in women’s basketball. Legends of the game.

“Basically, everyone on the team,” she said with a smile. “…I always imagined playing against them one day. I didn’t realize it was going to be so soon.”

Serbia's Angela Dugalic listens to her coach during a timeout against the U.S. on Friday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Sometimes, things sneak up on you. Sometimes, they’re built over generations.

The U.S. women continued their run as one of the Olympics’ most dominant teams, now one win away from a seventh-straight gold medal after beating Serbia 79-59.

The Americans will face the winner of the other semifinal game between Japan and France.

The U.S. team recovered from a slow start in training, including a pair of exhibition losses, finding ways to balance the job in front of them while dealing with the historic implications of what the Americans are trying to do.

A win on Sunday in the finals would give Bird and Taurasi their fifth gold medals, further cementing their places among the most decorated Olympians of all time. And such a victory would extend an Olympic-winning streak that stretches back to the bronze medal game in Barcelona in 1992.

Breanna Stewart is playing in her second Olympics. She hopes to play in at least three more, like fellow Team USA members Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.

“I don’t think we really talk about it as much, but we’re all aware of it,” Stewart said. “Sue and [Diana], what they’ve done for USA basketball is extremely special. The fact that they’re going for five straight golds is insane. For the rest of us, as players, we want to make sure that we put them in the best possible position to get that gold.”

Mostly stuck inside their hotel, really only leaving to watch the American men’s basketball team play, they’ve filled days with some video games and hotly contested Uno matches. Most of the NBA and WNBA players here spent time in a bubble last summer when their leagues finished their seasons.

This, Stewart said, is worse.

“I think we left the WNBA bubble like, ‘I’d rather not go into a bubble ever again.’ But, to be able to play basketball right now, that’s what we need to do to be safe, to play in a bubble,” Stewart said. “We were able to have a little bit more freedom with the WNBA. Here, we are not able to do that. It’s fine. We’re just happy that the Olympics are being held, that we’re able to be here in Tokyo. And this is a business trip.”

-TOKYO,JAPAN August 6, 2021: USA's Sylvia Fowles has her jersey grabbed.
U.S. center Sylvia Fowles has her jersey grabbed by Serbia’s Maja Skoric while pulling in a rebound during Friday’s game.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Getting to the finish line hasn’t been easy, despite having undoubtedly the most talented team in the tournament. Bothered some by the Serbian’s physicality on offense, the U.S. defense was even less forgiving. The Serbs shot 33% from the field after being well under 30 for most of the game. Griner and the American bigs dominated inside. Griner finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Stewart also double-doubled with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Bird hit a pair of threes and finished with eight points. Taurasi grimaced in pain throughout the game and only played 12:30. American coach Dawn Staley thought Taurasi would be ready for Sunday’s final, the end of their Olympic journey.

“I think everybody here wants to win gold for them, for us, for everybody that started this streak,” Griner said.

But it’s also important to lock in on the present, to shake the burden of upholding the program’s legacy and focus solely on 40 minutes of basketball.

“We talked … about enjoying the moment,” Stewart said. “I think that right now, that there’s so much pressure knowing that it’s seven straight [golds] and things like that, that you kind of get lost in what’s actually happening and enjoying being at the Olympics, on the court, competing every single day. And I think we did that.”

Across the court, that’s exactly what the Americans saw Dugalic do, playing with tons of pent-up energy after watching the Olympics from the sidelines. She chased down every loose ball, leading her team with 10 rebounds.

She scored twice, both times thanks to running the court and beating the WNBA stars to the basket. During her 22 minutes on the court, the Serbians were three points better than the Americans.

Following the Olympics, Dugalic will get to UCLA and settle in after transferring from Oregon. She’s excited but first her team will play in the bronze medal game Saturday, a perfect way to cap the rapid realization of so many dreams.

“This, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said. “Hopefully there will be more.”

If the U.S. can win again, they’ll get to celebrate Bird and Taurasi’s last dance as once-in-a-lifetime Olympians, the perfect intersection of past achievement with present glory.

“We celebrate our wins, and we turn the page and we look forward to the next time that we compete,” Staley said. “But I know it’s gonna be pretty special. I know, they’re probably just reserving [that emotion] for that moment of actually winning their fifth gold medal and our seventh straight.”


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