Staley emphasizes familiarization after U.S. loss to Australia

Result is even more surprising after Cambage leaves Australian team

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The U.S. women’s basketball team’s road to a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal isn’t going to be as breezy as many thought. A 70-67 exhibition loss to rival Australia on Friday in Las Vegas proved just how wide open the upcoming Tokyo Olympic tournament is going to be.

“We don’t like losing,” U.S. coach Dawn Staley said, “… but if there is progress taking place with this team, it puts us in a better place.”

It was the second loss in three days for the U.S., which lost to the WNBA All-Stars by eight points on Wednesday. The U.S. was limited to 2-of-18 shooting from 3-point range and shot 37 percent overall, as the Opals rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit and created 15 second-half turnovers. The U.S. was also without Diana Taurasi, who sat out with a hip muscle strain.

“They made it hard for us to make entry passes and they made us go to a different option,” Staley said. “… We are familiarizing ourselves [with] where we have some weaknesses, and we’ll continue to correct them. …

“At times, we got pretty good ball movement, and then at times, we get a little stagnant. And I think that is just from everybody playing their style of play and what they do for their respective [WNBA] teams. But ball flow and ball movement will help any team, and we definitely have to do that, especially when we are challenged in catching the ball. … I think we are just a step behind because we’re trying to figure each other out.”

Breanna Stewart led the U.S. with 17 points and 12 rebounds but missed a potential game-tying three in the waning seconds.

“I think the big thing is just communicating, overcommunicating,” Stewart added. “So then if we do have lapses where we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do, we’re able to work through it quickly on the court.”

Stewart’s teammate with the Seattle Storm, Ezi Magbegor, led Australia with 17 points, which is more than triple what the 21-year-old averages in the WNBA.

“We had a lot of determination,” Australia coach Sandy Brondello said. “And sometimes, that’s what you need. Just being aggressive, and we’ve got to be a team that plays defense and creates a bit out of that. But once we started having a better inside-outside attack, things started flowing.”

The win for Australia is even more impressive because it comes in the aftermath of leading scorer Liz Cambage leaving the team to address her mental and physical health.

“It hasn’t been easy, definitely,” Brondello said, “but it shows the character of this team, and it’s been tough. I wasn’t quite sure what the game would look like today, to be quite honest.”

Many would have thought the loss of Cambage would have been the nail in the coffin for the Australians, who missed a spot on the podium in 2016 after winning five consecutive Olympic medals. If players like Rebecca Allen and Stephanie Talbot, both of whom scored in double figures on Friday, continue to step up, the Opals could challenge for the gold in Tokyo.

The U.S. players and coaches repeatedly emphasized that they don’t overlook any opposing teams and that the global talent level is improving. If Friday was any indication, we could be in store for a highly competitive tournament. There will be one more tune-up with Nigeria on Sunday before the U.S. team heads to Tokyo.