U.S. women out to regain title

The initial reaction from Team USA four years ago after losing to Russia in the semifinals of the FIBA World Championship for Women? Disbelief. The Americans had been on a very long winning streak, and now it had ended unexpectedly in Brazil.

Team USA had taken bronze medals in the 1992 Olympics and '94 world championship, prompting a recommitment from USA Basketball. Hence the year-long traveling team buildup to the '96 Summer Olympics, a watershed event for women's basketball in which the Americans took gold.

They proceeded to win world titles in 1998 and 2002, and Olympic titles in 2000 and 2004. Going into the 2006 world championship, there was every reason to think the domination would continue. Except …

Lisa Leslie, who'd been a stalwart for the Team USA for a dozen years, did not go to Brazil in the wake of a family emergency, as her uncle was paralyzed in a car accident. Dawn Staley, another USA Basketball "senior citizen," was retired.

And while it seemed the Americans still should have had enough firepower and leadership to win in 2006 … they didn't. They took bronze again, as Australia defeated Russia for the gold medal.

"When you don't deserve to win, you won't," USA guard Diana Taurasi said of 2006. "We didn't deserve to win. Russia came out and played a great game. To watch the gold-medal game -- it's embarrassing. But we went, and the two best teams were in the finals.

"That's something we have to be really careful of in the Czech Republic. Because these teams are very good."

Taurasi's longtime teammate at UConn and internationally, Sue Bird, remembers that at first after that loss to Russia, there was almost a kind of denial. Like, can we rewind this day and start again?

"Immediately after, we were in a little bit of shock," Bird said. "And then we were crushed; 'How could this happen?' Then, later on, Dee and I -- I remember we went to one of our rooms and ordered room service, and we were sitting there trying to eat, but we were very upset.

"I know [Russia's] players very well, and every one of them played their best game. You had players doing things they normally don't do. And everyone they brought in hit a shot or got a rebound. But that is what you have to be ready for."

The United States will start the quest at noon ET Thursday against Greece; all the Americans' games will be televised on NBA TV.

Bird and Seattle teammate Swin Cash, coming off their WNBA title, were the latest arrivals for Team USA in the Czech Republic -- and they got there as quickly as they could. As Bird told The Associated Press, "We know what's at stake."

Indeed, not just national pride, but alma mater pride. Fully half of the 12-woman roster is from UConn, including the lone amateur player of the group, Huskies senior Maya Moore.

Bird, Taurasi, Cash, Moore, Asjha Jones and Tina Charles will compete for UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who's doing the tiring double-duty as national team coach.

It will be a chance to see a mixing of two of the groups of UConn perfection; Bird, Taurasi, Cash and Jones went undefeated in 2002; Moore and Charles have been on the past two perfect national championship teams.

The UConn-ization of this USA team very likely could have happened exactly as it has regardless of who was the head coach. Jones was the only player to make the final cut who, realistically, hadn't been considered a lock for quite a while.

And Jones, who wasn't 100 percent during the WNBA season because of injury, now appears to be close to her usual self -- which is going to be important for Team USA. With Leslie retired, Candace Parker out after missing most of the WNBA season due to shoulder surgery and Sylvia Fowles surrounded by question marks because of knee problems, the interior game would appear to be the Americans' biggest concern.

Jayne Appel -- who had a marginal rookie season with San Antonio as she recovered from injuries -- appears to be coming into better form at a fortuitous time for the Americans.

But more than half the team -- Appel, Charles, Jones, Moore, Angel McCoughtry, Candice Dupree and Lindsay Whalen -- are playing in their first truly major competition for the senior national team. They've all had USA Basketball experience, but not at the two biggest events: the Olympics and the FIBA World Championship.

To that end, the other five -- Olympic medalists Bird, Taurasi, Cash, Fowles and Tamika Catchings -- have to carry the experience load. Catchings and Cash are the team's oldest players at 31; Cash just celebrated her birthday Wednesday, in fact.

The last two cuts from Team USA were very tough to make; Kara Lawson and Seimone Augustus both played in the 2008 Olympics. Another '08 gold medalist, Cappie Pondexter, opted out of the world championship.

Auriemma said she was dealing with unspecified "physical issues;" Pondexter has communicated -- via Twitter -- that she needed to rest and chose now as opposed to taking a break from any of her winter-time commitment to playing in Russia.

How much of an impact did Pondexter's decision to attend Fashion Week in New York rather than join Team USA for practice actually factor into this, if at all? Did she decide she needed the break right now only after there was some disagreement on when she would report to the U.S. team?

Pondexter has said no, that wasn't it. However, there was no indication all through the WNBA season that she wasn't going to play in the world championship. Thus, if she indeed decided as soon as her New York Liberty were eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals that she needed a break from basketball now, it would have been a wise move to publicly announce that, rather than leave open speculation that she was picking Fashion Week over USA Basketball.

You might think those who care about her could have advised her of that. But there is a leadership void right now with the Liberty, so it's not as if Pondexter is getting guidance from the WNBA organization she represents.

There's no coach or general manager. Anne Donovan, as planned, went to take over as coach at Seton Hall. But GM Carol Blazejowski, who was already working on plans for next season's team, was suddenly announced Monday as having left the organization. Meaning she was let go. Blazejowski hasn't commented publicly; she had been with the Liberty since their inception in 1997.

Also, the Liberty's media relations point person left near the end of the regular season. No one currently involved with the organization seems to have any concern that Pondexter isn't going to play for Team USA, as if her potential participation in the world championship as a member of the Liberty would have had no significance to the franchise.

At any rate, considering that Pondexter is one of the very best players in the world -- she scored 36 points in her last game this season and was a strong MVP candidate -- her absence is a blow to Team USA. But it's still, of course, a very talented squad.

But it also is a team with several members learning the ropes of competition at this level. Pondexter's absence as a guard might have been what opened the door for Whalen. Then again, Whalen might have made the team either way. Regardless, at 28, she is happy to have the chance.

"When I found out, I was very excited and really honored," Whalen said. "I'm just going to continue to do the things that got me on the team. It's one of those things that you grow up thinking about and dreaming about. I'm just happy I put myself in a situation to make the team. It's a huge accomplishment."

Whalen will back up Bird, who is very much a veteran of international play. She was Staley's understudy at point guard in the 2004 Olympics, and you better believe Bird took note of everything Staley did.

"I can remember in 2004, Dawn, right as we were entering the medal round, calling a players-only meeting and breaking it all down," Bird said. "Telling us, whatever we had just done didn't matter. Because these last games to get a medal were the games that teams like Russia and Australia had prepared for all year. These were the games that we really had to be ready for.

"It makes you open your eyes. As a young player, you don't think to remind your teammates of that. But I know I'll be ready to remind them now, because I've experienced it, I've seen it, I know what the other teams can do."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.