RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) No one has been able to beat the U.S. women's basketball team at the Olympics for 20 years. With a wealth of talent returning and waiting in the wings, it doesn't look like the unprecedented run will be ending anytime soon.
Even with four-time Olympians Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings having likely just played their last game for the U.S., the future remains incredibly bright for the team that's won six consecutive Olympic gold medals and dominated the sport for two decades.
Brittney Griner, Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne won gold medals in their Olympic debuts. Throw in two-time gold medalists Maya Moore, Tina Charles and Angel McCoughtry - who should all be back in 2020 - and there is another strong nucleus to build on for the Tokyo Games.
''I feel really confident about it,'' Bird said of the future of the women's program. ''There are some question marks with the point guard spot, but I don't think it will be an issue. They have plenty of time to figure it out. The three youngsters on this team, second timers, there's such a large amount of talent in our country. We push each other every summer in the WNBA and show each other what it takes.''
During the run for the Americans, each team has been led by experienced players. The 2016 team had nine that won gold four years earlier in London. The four-timers said they learned from other U.S. greats like Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley. Bird, Taurasi and Catchings served as the bridge from the 1996 team that started the 49-game winning streak and now the trio has passed that legacy down to the next group.
''What's better for me is knowing that the people that started that journey, I got a chance to play with,'' Catchings said. ''So it kind of like crossed over. They passed the torch on to Sue, Dee and I, and now you know whatever happens next, whether Sue and Dee play in another one or not, for me it's kind of like I'm passing the torch over to whoever that next generation is. I know because of the overlap that we've had, that hopefully we can keep it going.''
U.S. coach Geno Auriemma was impressed with how the leaders set examples - on and off the court - for the younger players to follow.
''There's a lot of entitlement in sports out there today,'' Auriemma said. ''You have three Hall of Fame players, Sue, Dee, Tamika Catchings, who don't think they are entitled to anything. They work hard every day and feel they have to earn it. ... I think the attitude and example they set is probably one that the next group is going to benefit from more than anything else.''
Griner said she learned a lot from the three veterans.
''They told me coming into this, take every moment in,'' said Griner, who joked that she told Taurasi she can't stop playing USA Basketball until Griner stops. ''It goes by quick and cherish every single moment. To share the court, share a bus, share a locker room with them has been amazing. I learned a lot on the court, off the court and just having fun with them.''
Griner later added that she knows it's very important to keep the run going.
''You don't want to let down the ones that came and set the bar,'' she said. ''We have to keep this legacy alive, we don't want to let down the ones who sacrificed so much for USA Basketball.''
AP Summer Games website: http://summergames.ap.org/
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