11:24 PM ET
- Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.
LAS VEGAS — Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale smiled broadly but didn’t take the bait. After she helped Team WNBA beat Team USA 93-85 Wednesday and won the league’s All-Star Game MVP award, she didn’t say, “Yeah, maybe I should have been on the Olympic team” when asked if that went through her mind.
“Y’all be wanting some drama,” Ogunbowale said, laughing, in her postgame video call after scoring a game-high 26 points. “Good luck to Team USA. All those girls are deserving so … you know, hopefully they go win a gold medal.”
The 24-year-old former Notre Dame star is likely to be on the U.S. team for the 2024 Olympics. But Wednesday, she and Team WNBA did their best to prepare Team USA for what the Americans will face in the upcoming Tokyo Games as they seek the program’s seventh consecutive gold medal.
In fact, there is so much talent in the United States, the members of Team WNBA — who were voted into a pool by fans, media and WNBA players, then selected by the league’s coaches for this game — would have a great chance at gold if they were going to the Olympics instead.
But the group that will be making that trip, selected by USA Basketball last month, looked at Wednesday’s contest as a chance to discover more about itself. Team USA has two other opportunities to do that here in Las Vegas: It faces Australia on Friday and Nigeria on Sunday in exhibitions at Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay.
“This was, in some ways, another practice for us,” said Team USA guard Sue Bird of Seattle, who will be going to her fifth Olympics. “Those are the moments when you find out what you need to work on.
“For the coaches, they have to figure out which group is most cohesive. These things always take a whole training camp, months or years. And we try to do it in a matter of days or weeks. This was just the first step. We learn from it and move on. I think we learned we’re not a team yet.”
As everyone predicted, this was not a typical All-Star Game in which players do a fair amount of goofing around and defense is optional at best. There was real defense played Wednesday, including some late steals and fast-break points that helped Team WNBA hold on to the victory.
Team WNBA was coached by Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson, both former WNBA greats and Olympic teammates of Team USA coach Dawn Staley. Thompson is coach of Virginia’s women’s team and Staley coaches at South Carolina. They are all good friends who won Olympic gold together and are Naismith Hall of Famers, and it was clear they all took this game seriously, too.
“When we came into practice, Tina and Lisa were like, ‘What’s the plan, what do you all want to do?'” said Team WNBA’s Jonquel Jones of Connecticut, who also could have been MVP with 18 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals. “Everybody said, ‘We want to give them a good game, get them prepared for [the] Olympics.’ But also, just to compete and show that we’re on that level as well. I’m proud that we were able to do that.”
Both teams had players sit out: Las Vegas center Liz Cambage for Team WNBA and Phoenix guard Diana Taurasi for Team USA. Cambage has been dealing with some Achilles tendon issues and wants to be as healthy as possible for the Olympics, where she’ll play for Australia. Similarly, Taurasi has had a hip injury and said she wants to be ready for Tokyo.
Wednesday’s game proved more enjoyable for Cambage, being on the winning side.
“I was blessed to still be on the bench today, enjoying my popcorn and watching some great basketball,” Cambage said.
Taurasi, who like Bird will be playing in her fifth Olympics, echoed her longtime U.S. teammate. The Americans’ Olympic opener is July 27 vs. Nigeria.
“At the end of the day, we’re here for a bigger goal than to win an All-Star Game,” Taurasi said. “We’ll get better as time goes.”
ESPN’s Kelly Cohen contributed to this report.