USA women's hoops collects 50th straight Olympic win, though this one was trickier than others

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SAITAMA, Japan — It’s probably hard to call a team that just won its 50th consecutive game in Olympic competition a group in transition, but with two of the sport's greatest players almost certainly wearing the uniform for the last time and a new coach in charge, it’s hard to call Team USA women’s basketball anything else.

On Tuesday at Saitama Super Arena, the U.S. women began pursuit of their seventh straight gold medal at this tournament against Nigeria. It wasn’t the prettiest game — and that’s just what Nigeria was hoping for — but the Americans won 81-72.

Known as "D’Tigress," the Nigerians were up 20-17 at the end of the first quarter and 25-20 with eight minutes to play in the first half.

That’s when the Americans, who feature six first-time Olympians, settled in and started to make the necessary adjustments. They scored 23 unanswered points, with Sue Bird distributing and helping the offense get into a rhythm.

“I think the best part about this game for us is from quarter 1 to quarter 2, we settled down, there was a bit of adjustment, we calmed down, and we were able to play our game,” said Bird, playing in her fifth Olympics. “And of course the second half was going to be up and down like the first half. Nigeria causes a lot of that. Could we have handled some of it better? Absolutely. But you have to be ready for that kind of game when you’re playing them.”

Sue Bird (6) andd Team USA beat Nigeria to open pursuit of their seventh straight Olympic women's basketball gold medal. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Sue Bird (6) andd Team USA beat Nigeria to open pursuit of their seventh straight Olympic women's basketball gold medal. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

“We anticipated them flying around and mucking up the game and crowding our space," head coach Dawn Staley said, "[but] it took us a quarter and a half to adjust to it. Sometimes, you have to win playing a different style of game.”

The U.S. had 12 turnovers against 14 assists in the first half, and 25 turnovers against 25 assists for the game.

Nigeria head coach Otis Hughley Jr. stressed that turnover number after the game, which helped balance his team shooting just 23-of-84 (27.4 percent) from the field.

Bird said that attacking, stifling defense is how the Nigerians like to play.

“They like to make the game chaotic, they like to make you do things that you’re not used to doing, play the way you don’t want to play, so you’re not going to be pretty against them,” Bird said. “A lot of the turnovers are because that’s what they want to do, and there’s a percentage there, let’s call it 25 percent, where we’re still getting comfortable, we’re still getting used to each other, we’re still getting used to FIBA and how the referees call the game. That’s how it always is at these tournaments, you have to adjust.”

Bird had 13 assists and eclipsed 100 total in Olympic competition. Reigning WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson led the U.S. with 19 points and 13 rebounds, and Brittney Griner had 13 points and 10 boards.

Now 40 years old, Bird said this will be her last Olympics, but Staley, the new Team USA head coach, wasn’t buying it.

“You never count Sue out; I know she said that, but she continues to play and she continues to play well,” Staley said. “If indeed it is her last Olympics, I’m sure we would like to send her off into the sunset winning another gold medal for her."

The current 50-game Olympics win streak began with the 1992 bronze medal game. Staley was a member of the 1996, 2000 and 2004 U.S. teams that really began to stretch out this sustained run of global dominance.

“It sounds like a big number and it is a big number, but I don’t think people really understand what goes into it. They think we show up and they think you’re automatically going to win basketball games,” she said. “But what we put into it, the sacrifices, the players who continually sacrifice, they make a commitment. Our greatness is because of players who make that sacrifice.

“I just hope it’s a double-nickel by the time this two-week [tournament] ends.”

“We don’t just walk out there and win — there’s a big target on our backs,” Griner added. “Just getting the best shot from everybody and keeping that legacy alive, never going out and being disrespectful, never not give it our all. It’s an honor to be a part of that.”

The U.S. plays host nation Japan on Friday in its second Group B game.

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