TOKYO — The relief was palpable.
Dawn Staley knew she was coaching the most talented basketball team in the Olympics, but she also knew that it’s not always the most talented team that wins. She was also fully aware, having been immersed in it for the past 25 years, that for Team USA, anything less than an Olympic gold medal is an abysmal failure.
Being the head coach and knowing that a gold means you were just continuing what’s expected but no gold means nobody will ever let you forget you broke the streak, is not an easy task. Staley understood and still accepted it, admitting before the Aug. 7 gold-medal game that she was having sleepless nights in Tokyo.
She can take a long rest now. For a record-tying seventh straight Olympics, Team USA has won the gold medal.
The Americans blew away dogged Japan 90-75 behind the superiority of their height, 6-9 Brittney Griner scoring 30 points and Staley’s former South Carolina pupil, 6-4 A’ja Wilson, scoring 19. The Japanese, playing in front of a home crowd and for their first medal in the sport, became a darling of the tournament due to their frenetic play and skillful 3-point shooting but were no match for the Americans’ presence in the paint.
Japan kept it within striking distance for a half but an 18-6 third-quarter run put the game to bed. Team USA tied the U.S. men’s basketball squad as the only teams in worldwide Olympic history to win seven straight gold medals (the men took gold from 1936-68, with the 1940 and 1944 Olympics canceled due to World War II).
Veteran guards Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi each won their fifth gold medal while Staley has been part of six of the past seven gold-medal teams, three as a player and two as an assistant coach. Her head-coaching debut, delayed a year due to COVID-19, was packed with pressure but still a relative breeze toward the only result the Americans expect.
Staley won’t get an actual medal for the win (only the players do) but it was still plenty special. She carried the torch for the program and got to coach Wilson in doing so.
Wilson celebrated her 25th birthday on Aug. 7 with her first Olympic gold. She also had seven rebounds, five blocks and five assists.