International Basketball

The Best USA Women’s Basketball Players Gather In Storrs

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STORRS – They gathered Sunday, fittingly on the UConn champions court, to begin the long, tough road to Brazil, where the best women’s basketball players in this country will seek to earn the U.S. its sixth straight Olympic Gold Medal this summer.

Seventeen players out of 25 finalists are here for though a 3-day mini-camp so that coaches, including Olympic and UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, and USA Basketball selection committee members can start the difficult job of paring down the roster to 12.

“Eveytime this group gets together they’re always ready to go,” said Auriemma who has coached the 2012 Olympic team as well as others competing in world games. “They’re committed to what we’re trying to do,” which he said is very much like prior competitions with these players.

“They have a pretty good idea of what to expect from each other. All you can do is keep reinforcing things we’ve done before. Three days is not ideal obviously but we’ll try to get most out of the little time we have together.”

Nine of those invited have played on Gold Medal winning Olympic and International teams, including former UConn star Diana Taurasi, a three-time Olympian and the first and to date the only U.S. professional to forgo a season in the WNBA to rest her body for full time play with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia this winter. Three invitees, Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles and Nnemkadi Owumike couldn’t attend the camp because they’re still playing in Europe.

Taurasi, 33, the first American professional to opt out of playing in the WNBA in favor of European career, said giving up summer basketball here was the best thing she could do to prolong her career, now in its 10th year, because the time off allowed her to heal physically and mentally. Although it was hard at first watching WNBA games on television, she has no regrets about her decision.

“I consider it the best thing I’ve done in the last couple of years.,” she said.

She said she had a lot of injuries during her year round career, including those to her back, ankle, a broken hand and others. “A lot of things I didn’t know about were wrong with me because I was playing hurt all the time,” she said.

The summer off renewed her enthusiasm for the game.

“When you step back on the court, you feel younger again, not only physically but mentally too. You feel the fun that comes with doing it again because you were missing it.”

Her former Mercury Phoenix teammate, 6-8 Brittney Griner, who also plays for that Russian team, is also at the training camp for the first time, the pair free for a few days until the EuroLeague returns for the post season tournament.

“I wouldn’t want to be on the committee that has to pick the team,” Griner said, referring to the quality of the prospective candidates, who between them have amassed dozens of world championship medals. “Whoever doesn’t make it –it’s going to be tough,” she said.

Another veteran Olympian is Sue Bird, another former UConn player,whi brought home Olympic gold with the 2004, 2008 and 2012 teams.

At 35, she is the second oldest player at the trials (Tamika Catchings, a 2004,2008 and 2012 Gold Medal winner is 36) and just renewed her contract with the Seattle Storm, the sole professional team she has been on since 2002, although there is no specified end date to the latest agreement.

“It’s special – there’s nothing like it’. Said Bird, the point guard who led UConn to three NCAA titles during her college years in early 2000. “If I have the opportunity to do it for a fourth time,” she said referring to the Olympics, “it would be pretty amazing. I would take it with me the rest of my life.”

The only college player among those invited, and likely to make the team as well, is UConn’s Breanna Stewart, the 6-4 senior who has dominated women’s collegiate basketball for four seasons.

Auriemma, who coaches her in college, said Stewart, 21, who has considerable international experience, has grown a lot since her first foray into elite national team play and although this level of experience is still fairly new to her, she gets better each time she plays with them.

“If you were to bring anybody out here today and say ‘pick out the college player,’ they couldn’t do that. She’s right at home,” he said.

Griner, who was matched up with Stewart, who held her own during Sunday’s scrimmages, said Stewart fit right in during play and will be an outstanding WNBA professional this summer. “At worlds she was giving other countries problems with her size on the boards,” Griner said.

Bird said Stewart and 6-5 Elena Delle Donne, who UConn once coveted but went to the University of Delaware, in her home state, are the two most versatile players in the camp.

“She brings a lot to the table,” Bird said of Stewart.

Stewart said she is constantly learning from the national team players “because they’re playing at a level I’m not at yet.

“You want to go up against players like Brittney Griner if you want to play at the highest levels,” she said.

“Every time I play with these players, I want to make sure I’m the biggest sponge I can be.”

She will continue to be a sponge through Tuesday, mixing the national team practices with UConn practices and a full course load.

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