Mercury to be well represented in Olympics
PHOENIX — The Phoenix Mercury are sending a league-leading six team members to the upcoming Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, showing the depth of talent from the three-time WNBA champions.
The team’s 12-year veteran guard and three-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi will lead Team USA as a tri-captain.
"You know (wearing Team USA’s jersey is) the one thing that I’ve taken a lot of pride and honor in doing since I was a little kid," Taurasi said. "Being selected to my fourth Olympics, it means a lot, it’s a lot of years; I’ve been really lucky so I’m really excited."
Joining her on Team USA and making her first Olympic appearance is four-year Mercury center, Brittney Griner.
"It always makes it better when you have someone from your team that’s there with you," Griner said in a statement released by USA Basketball. "But I’ve been around all these ladies. We feel that camaraderie and that sisterhood."
The team’s veteran forward Penny Taylor (Australia), forward Sonja Petrovic (Serbia), guard Lindsey Harding (Belarus) and guard Marta Xargay (Spain) are all playing for their home countries.
The USA women’s basketball team takes a 41-game winning streak into Olympic play, not having lost since the bronze-medal game in Barcelona in 1992.
There are only two other traditional team sports that have longer gold-medal streaks: the American men’s basketball team, which won seven straight from 1936 to 1968 and India’s men’s field hockey team, which won six consecutive golds from 1928 to 1956.
But Taurasi doesn’t let the impressive numbers sidetrack her from the final goal.
"We’ve always gone in there with an underdog mentality about trying to be the best team, trying to play the best basketball and that’s what we’re going to try to do again and hopefully that’s good enough," she said.
Taurasi, considered one of the best players in the world, takes home a WNBA salary of $109,500, which is just under the league maximum. She also cashes in about $1.5 million from her Russian team, UMMC Ekaterinburg.
She’s averaged 19 points, four assists and three rebounds over the first 23 games in the 2016 season, nearly matching her career season average of 20 points, four assists and four rebounds. In June, the 6-foot guard became the fastest player in WNBA history to reach 7,000 points.
Taurasi will again play for her former University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach, Geno Auriemma, who enters his second Olympics as the head coach of Team USA. He has led UConn to eleven national championships, an unmatched feat in college basketball, and has the highest winning percentage among all NCAA basketball coaches.
Five former UConn players appear on Team USA’s Rio roster.
In 2012, Griner had the chance to become the first college basketball player to make a United States Olympic team since 1988, but she pulled her name out of consideration because of an unspecified family illness.
After averaging 15 points, seven rebounds and four blocks since entering the league, she was rightfully expected to make the roster.
And although Taurasi and Griner play together during the WNBA season, as an Olympic national team, they get less than two weeks to train and practice with the other 10 women.
"That’s not ideal, but we’ve done it before and and I think we have core players that have been together for a long time that kind of know what needs to be done in a short amount of time," Taurasi said. "It’s one of those things that the minute you’re on the national team you kind of switch over to a different mentality."
In a teleconference, Auriemma said they’ll use all the time they can get to prepare.
"Getting them acclimated to that style of play in a short period of time is going to be the key," he said. "It’s a little bit different than what they’re used to, and we’ve got veteran players, so that’s a huge plus for us."
It’s not just the case for Team USA, as the four other Mercury Olympians are headed to their respective training sites following their last game on July 19.
The WNBA will take a month-long hiatus leading up to, and including, Olympic play. The Mercury will open back up at home on Aug. 26 for the remaining 10 games of the season. If playoffs were to start today, the Mercury would be eligible with a No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
Taylor, who missed the 2012 London games because of a knee injury, is a soon-to-be three-time Olympian. She has two silver medals with the Australian national team, and is ready to give Team USA a run for its money.
"We know that the U.S. is the champions; they’re the gold medalists," Taylor said. "We’ve got so many challenges before we even get to play them, and hopefully we get to that gold medal game."
Taylor said she thinks Australia may also need to have luck on its side to upset the United States for the coveted gold medal.
"It’s going to take a perfect game from us and hopefully them not having a great game," she said.
Like Taylor, Xargay said she is excited to face off with her WNBA teammates.
"I already played against them overseas, so we know each other from that time," she said. "It’s going to be fun to play against them in Rio."
Xargay, 25, grew up with a goal of making an Olympic team.
"I think it’s a dream come true," she said. "I have always had this dream, I (would) always talk to my parents that I want to go there and enjoy the experience."
The Phoenix Mercury vice president of operations, Vince Kozar, says the organization is proud its roster includes some of the best players in the world.
The Mercury has reached the playoffs seven out of the past nine seasons and has won three championships in that same span. They’ve had players selected for the all-star game every year since the annual game began in 2003. There is no all-star game during Olympic years.
"We are a destination team for domestic and international free agents who could play anywhere in the WNBA and chose to play in Phoenix," Kozar said. "In all ways, it’s a very positive reflection of the culture and organization that has been built here in Phoenix, and we’ll be cheering all of them on in Rio."
Already one of the most decorated basketball players of all-time, Taurasi may be playing in her final Olympics.
She had some advice for her fellow teammate and Olympic Rookie.
"She said she wishes she would have taken advantage of some of the small things like being in the village and really taking it in, and that’s what I plan on doing," Griner said.
If the United States wins another gold medal, Taurasi will join Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie as the only basketball players — men or women — to ever win four gold medals.
"She is the greatest player in the world, and we are fortunate the only WNBA jersey she has ever worn is a Mercury jersey," Kozar said. "She’s always been the fieriest of competitors, and we’ve all gotten to watch her grow into a great leader on and off the floor and her (USA Basketball) experience is just another extension of that."
Olympic women’s basketball opens up with group play on Aug. 6 and plays through Aug. 21.