TOKYO — The U.S. women's basketball team has still got it. The squad defeated Japan 86-69 in preliminary play at the Tokyo Olympics and it is the team's 51st straight win dating back to the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
On Friday, the U.S. tangled with host country Japan at Saitama Super Arena, outside Tokyo. The U.S. pulled away at the end but for a while, it was a bit of a nail biter.
In the first quarter, the Japanese team, coached by former Penn State player Tom Hovasse, led 30-28. During the 1976 Olympics, Japan was the only team to beat the U.S. The few fans allowed to watch from the stands during the Tokyo Games cheered them on, hoping history might repeat itself.
It was not to be.
Afterwards, WNBA player Sue Bird told reporters the game had been a challenge. "We've been telling you guys for years that we're making it look easy," she said, "Now what you're seeing is, we told you so, it's hard. That's not to say we're not headed in the right direction."
USA's A'ja Wilson, who scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, agreed. "When it comes to Japan, we have to guard the guards. So that made us kind of keep us on our toes."
U.S. head coach Dawn Staley said Japan is a tough team to play against. She was impressed by the Japanese players, who she said were calculating, disciplined and efficient. "I do think they're in a position to medal here just because of their style of playing," she said. "Our team is not used to being pressed for 40 minutes. They keep you occupied. All five players are being occupied or out there on the floor. And I see the style of play that we're just not used to playing against all at once."
Staley said the gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world's top teams may be closing. She recalled that her team from South Carolina trained with Japan's national team three years ago, "and they easily beat us. We worked hard and we still lost by 25, 30 points. And then to see how much that team has progressed, I mean, they had time, they've been together."
Staley said the U.S. women's basketball team was grateful to play against Japan, "It's also pretty cool to win," she said.
The U.S. next plays France in group play on Monday as it continues its quest for a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal.