SYDNEY -- A fair amount of uncertainty surrounded USA Basketball as they entered a new chapter of the post-Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi era.
But in front of a crowd of 15,895 fans at the Sydney SuperDome -- most of whom were enthusiastically supporting Team China -- the new-look Team USA successfully reinforced the legacy that was built by those who came before them by winning a fourth consecutive World Cup gold and 11th overall behind a 83-61 victory over China in the final.
Just five players from the team that won a seventh-consecutive Olympic gold in Tokyo suited up in Sydney for the red, white and blue. No Bird, Taurasi, Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles or Brittney Griner. After the squad had been defined for years by its experience and elder-statesmanship, and tended to mostly feature players from a handful of elite schools, the team that took the floor instead featured just one 30-year-old, representatives from 10 collegiate programs and six newcomers to the senior national team at this level of competition. Even the head coach, Cheryl Reeve, who has won four WNBA titles with the Minnesota Lynx -- freshly assumed the helm of one of the greatest dynasties in sports.
"Maybe around the world, they kind of looked at it and said, 'Hey, now's the time to get the USA,'" Reeve said. "And I think what we showed is that our league, the WNBA and professional basketball players in the United States, are really, really good. And the depth of talent that we have was on display."
Indeed, the U.S. went undefeated through group play, winning by an average margin of 40.75 points and finishing with only one game decided by fewer than 15 points. Their 22-point win over China was also the largest margin of victory in a World Cup Final, according to FIBA.
The USA has dropped just one game in a major international competition (World Cup or Olympic play) since 1994 -- the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup against Russia -- winning 30 consecutive games in the tournament since.
"We know everybody wants to beat us. Everybody wants what we have, and that's gold medals and victories and things like that, and with that comes pressure," Breanna Stewart said. "We have amazing players who handle that pressure and perform at the highest stages possible.
"It's just embracing that [pressure], not fighting it and knowing that all the legends before us, what they've done, how they've won, things like that, yes, each team is different and we need to make our imprint on history."
With the win, the USA is also officially qualified for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
While last year's Olympic run in a Tokyo COVID-19 bubble seemingly carried an element of heaviness as the USA struggled to find its footing throughout the event, their 2022 World Cup experience was defined by a spirit of fun and lightness. With her hair soaked in champagne at the postgame press conference, Reeve lightly jabbed A'ja Wilson for finally figuring out where she was supposed to be in the gold medal game and for giving up 18 points on defense in the first half. With a champagne bottle in hand, Wilson spent large swaths of her second championship presser in two weeks showing off the Tissot watch she earned as tournament MVP.
"According to my watch, we're gold medalists," Wilson said. And later: "[In the quarterfinals] Serbia came out punched us in the mouth. And I was like, 'not on our watch.'"
In other words: The kids are alright in the USA.
"What I wanted them to do is make sure this tournament was fun," Reeve said. "I think there's sometimes when you have maybe pressure to win or the perceived pressure, it takes the enjoyment out of it. And I wanted to make sure that we enjoyed this journey and I thought this group was a great group. I know I enjoyed the hell out of it and I hope that they did too."
Players across the board agreed with that sentiment. And most terrifying for the competition? The new-look, younger USA is not going anywhere, and doesn't plan for the fun to stop anytime soon.
"I don't think we're showing signs of stopping, that's for sure," the 27-year-old Stewart said. "Our age has definitely gone down [compared to Tokyo]. But we have a lot of people who are just new into the league, entering their prime, in their prime. It's tough to stop."
Silver-medalist China made its first World Cup final appearance since 1994, also the last time it won a medal at a major international competition. Host nation Australia took home the bronze behind a 95-65 win over Canada in which former WNBA MVP and champion Lauren Jackson, who unretired from the sport and is playing at 41, dropped 30 points in her final game for the Opals.
Wilson's World Cup MVP honor marked yet another accolade after taking home her second WNBA MVP award, first defensive player of the year honor, and first WNBA title this season. She was joined on the All-Star Five by Bridget Carleton (Canada), Han Xu (China), Stewart (USA) and Steph Talbot (Australia).
"I've been here before, I've had players where A'ja is, where you win a WNBA championship, you come over and you win gold," Reeve said. "It's really, really special. And they make it look easy. It's not. They're tremendously talented. A'ja Wilson is tremendously talented."
"This is why you sacrifice," Wilson added. "My teammates hold me accountable. They put me in the best situation so I didn't really feel tired. This is what we live for. This is honestly my job and I love my job. I love what I do and now I can go to sleep. I'm so excited. My bed is literally calling my name."
Fresh off winning the WNBA title not even two weeks ago, Team USA's Las Vegas Aces trio of 2022 WNBA MVP Wilson, Chelsea Gray (2022 Finals MVP) and Kelsey Plum (a first-time All-Star and all-WNBA selection) added to their trophy case following a whirlwind stretch in which they linked up with the U.S. team well after it started preparations for the event -- in fact, not appearing until the third game of the tournament.
Amid the USA's somewhat slow start in the championship game, the trio was sensational in the Final, combining for 46 of the USA's 83 points. Wilson had 16 points in 16:35 in the first half to carry Team USA. After a five-point game at the end the first quarter and a 10-point game at the half, the USA broke it open with a 25-14 edge in the third to secure a comfortable lead going into the fourth.
Jewell Loyd was the other Team USA member to score in double digits, finishing with 11 points.
China was without Li Meng, their top scorer from the teams' first meeting of the tournament in group play, a 14-point USA win, due to an illness. The USA's Kahleah Copper was sidelined for the second straight game after injuring her hip in the quarterfinal. Alyssa Thomas went down with an upper-body injury in the second half but returned to the game after briefly being attended to in the locker room. Wu Tongtong also had to be carried off the floor in the fourth quarter after suffering an apparent knee injury.
In their first tournament as leaders of the team, WNBA MVPs Stewart and Wilson successfully carried the mantle left by them by the likes of Bird, Taurasi and Fowles. But the newcomers made their impact felt immediately, too, and no one as much as Thomas, with teammates deeming her their "glue" and the "MVP of this tournament" prior to the championship.
With Thomas as one of the focal points, Reeve's group -- which was initially rolled out during February's World Cup Qualifying Tournament -- was able to embrace a defensive identity not typical in recent years to the U.S. national team. Reeve pointed out that Team USA had 42 deflections against China in the gold medal matchup. All the more impressive, eight Team USA players arrived in Sydney late, including five who played in the WNBA Finals and arrived the week of the tournament.
"What I am most pleased about was the trust and buy-in," Reeve said. "Go back to Las Vegas and the group that we had, go back to February, and they helped us build this identity. And then great players like A'ja come in and were able to get us over the hump and keep the legacy."
"I don't look at it as a burden. I think it's just a stepping stone," Wilson said. "We plant seeds for the next generation.
"It's crazy because Stewie and I were taking a selfie, we were like, 'it's so many more to come.' I remember playing U16 with Stewie and winning a gold medal there and now we're winning medals at this level. So it's been incredible, just the journey, to continue to lay that foundation down. So many of the greats that have been in front of us laid it down, and now it's our turn to step up and be in that situation."