SAITAMA, Japan (AP) — Sue Bird capped off her unblemished 17-year Olympics run with a record fifth gold medal.
All she and longtime U.S. teammate Diana Taurasi have done on the international stage is win and now stand alone with five gold medals — the first basketball players ever to accomplish that feat — after a 90-75 win over Japan Sunday at the Tokyo Games.
The U.S. has now won the last seven Olympic gold medals matching the country’s men’s program for the most ever in a row. The men did it from 1936-68.
With Bird orchestrating the flow of games and Taurasi’s scoring, they have been a constant force for the U.S., providing stability for the women’s program since the 2004 Athens Games. They have won all 38 of the games at the Olympics they’ve competed in.
They walked off the court Sunday arm-in-arm, knowing their work was done.
The names have changed around the pair, including greats Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson, Tamika Catchings and Sylvia Fowles, but the results haven’t.
The Americans are on a 55-game Olympic winning streak dating back to the bronze medal game of the 1992 Barcelona Games.
The U.S. let Japan know that wasn’t going to change on Sunday.
The Americans jumped out to an 18-5 lead behind a dominant first quarter by Brittney Griner. The team lead 23-14 after one as Griner had 10 points, taking advantage of the undersized Japanese team. Japan was able to get within six in the second quarter before the Americans went up 11 at the half and never looked back.
As the final buzzer sounded, Bird and Taurasi embraced and then proceeded to hug all of their teammates and the coaching staff.
Griner finished with 30 points, making 14 of her 18 shots.
While Bird has said she is moving on and Taurasi has been noncommittal about her plans, the future is bright for the U.S. behind Griner, Breanna Stewart and the six newcomers on this year’s team. That included A’ja Wilson, who will be counted on to keep the streak going three years from now at the 2024 Paris Games. Wilson, who celebrated her 25th birthday on Sunday, made her presence felt in her Olympic debut, scoring 19 points in the gold medal game.
But there were other milestones of note besides Bird’s farewell.
The victory also made Dawn Staley, the first Black women’s basketball coach for the U.S., the second woman to win a gold medal as a player, assistant and head coach joining Anne Donovan.
The game also marked the end of Carol Callan’s run as the national team director. She started right before the Americans won the first gold of this streak in 1996 and has been the architect for this unprecedented run.
Japan, which was the only one of the 11 other teams to ever have beaten the U.S. in an Olympics, won a medal for the first time in the country’s history. The team’s best finish before Sunday was fifth.
The host nation has been on the rise since it hired coach Tom Hovasse. He said when he got the job 4 1/2 years ago that his team would be playing against the U.S. for the gold at the Tokyo Games — and would beat them.
He was half right.
The two teams met in preliminary pool play and the U.S. won by 17 points after trailing by two after the first quarter. Just like that game, the Americans used their dominant post advantage to control the title game. Japan’s biggest player was 6-foot-1 — no match for the imposing front line led by Griner, who is 6-9.
While the general public and family members couldn’t attend the games because of the coronavirus pandemic, Bird did have fiancee Megan Rapinoe in the stands cheering her on. Rapinoe helped the U.S. women’s soccer team win a bronze medal earlier this week, scoring two goals in that game.
A large contingent of Japanese volunteers, who had been in the Saitama Super Arena for the entire tournament sat and applauded their team. No actual cheering was allowed because of the coronavirus pandemic.