Taurasi in new role as she chases history, 6th Olympic gold medal
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Diana Taurasi is settling into a new role with USA Basketball.
She is trying to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic roster for the 2024 Paris Games, which would be her sixth. But this one feels like her first.
Ignore that she turns 42 before the Paris Games even start next July. Or that the veteran guard is chasing a chance at Olympic history, seeking to become the first to win six straight gold medals in basketball.
“I’m in a different position where you know in the last couple of them I did it with my peers, and now I’m doing it with B (Betnijah Laney) and you know, players that I’m not that familiar with,” Taurasi said Sunday night after a 95-59 exhibition win over No. 11 Tennessee.
This time around, there’s no Sue Bird as they made history at the 2021 Tokyo Games winning a fifth straight gold. Yes, Taurasi won gold with Brittney Griner in 2021 and 2016. Her WNBA teammate with the Phoenix Mercury is in the group starting training camp Tuesday in Atlanta.
Taurasi is building chemistry that simply existed previously. This group that caps this training stint Sunday with an exhibition at Duke includes only Ariel Atkins (2021) and Angel McCoughtry (2012 and 2016) along with Griner as teammates Taurasi celebrated Olympic gold with before.
A’ja Wilson, who just led the Las Vegas Aces to the WNBA title, currently has her left wrist in a cast. Breanna Stewart is awaiting the birth of her second child with her wife. Chelsea Gray is recovering from an injured foot that will keep her from a return to her college home at Duke.
That means getting to know a bunch of new teammates off the court.
“That always helps you when you're in the game,” Taurasi said.
She understands how major a factor that can be when playing on big stages, having played her best when the stakes are at the highest. Taurasi is one of only 12 players ever to win a World Cup gold medal, Olympic gold, an NCAA championship (three) and WNBA championship (yes, three more).
Taurasi is just as feisty, sarcastic and relentless as ever. Once the ball tips, that's when the 6-foot Taurasi becomes the focused competitor that makes her so valuable.
Tennessee coach Kellie Harper said Taurasi's “unbelievable” still playing as she enters her fifth year coaching her alma mater. Harper, 46, said she was doing the math and realized she's not much older than Taurasi. Not that Harper could do now what Taurasi does still.
“She’s savvy, she gets it, she’s a great leader,” Harper said.
Taurasi spoke to Harper's Lady Vols before Sunday night's exhibition, and Harper said she was impressed with how Taurasi carries herself. Not an easy thing to say considering how bitter the UConn-Tennessee rivalry once was and remains to fans with long memories.
Harper said Taurasi was cordial, gave her a hug and had a great visit with her team. Then Harper went onto the court before warmups and saw a different Taurasi.
“I locked in on her with my eyes, and you could just see she was on go,” Harper said. “I was like, 'Oh, this could be interesting’ because she just flipped that switch, and she was great at practice, cordial at practice, and I thought she was going to tear us apart in warmups, but that’s how competitive she is.”
Taurasi knocked down three 3-pointers in the first quarter and a pair of free throws, scoring all of her 11 points in 7:44. As Tennessee adjusted how it defended Taurasi, she switched up and handed out three assists.
“Like Coach (Cheryl Reeve) said, when you wear the USA jersey, it’s whatever you have to do to make the team better," Taurasi said. "Different moments call for different things.”
Playing against Taurasi can still be intimidating for an opponent, particularly the first time.
Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson, who has some USA Basketball experience, said she knew the Lady Vols would be playing Team USA in an exhibition. Then Harper started handing out the specific matchups.
“Then she goes, ‘Jewel (Spear), you’re guarding Diana Taurasi.’ My heart dropped,” Jackson said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is real.’ We’re really playing against the best players in the world.”
Make no mistake. If USA Basketball calls asking Taurasi to play in Paris, the answer will be the same as 2004 to play in Athens, Beijing in 2008, London in 2012, 2016 Rio and the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games.
“It’s always an honor when you get the call,” Taurasi said. “I’ve always taken it. And if I’m ready, you know, I get that opportunity, it’ll be nice.”
AP Olympic coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/olympics and https://apnews.com/hub/diana-taurasi