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Sierra Webster mug

Sierra Webster

Sports writer

Team USA just can’t win.

With the cynics, that is.

In actuality, they’re one of the winningest women’s basketball programs in the world.

With an unprecedented six-straight Olympic gold medals and record nine FIBA World Cup golds, the women’s national team, spearheaded by Team USA dynasty Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, is nearly unstoppable.

Until, at least, No. 1 Oregon women’s basketball took down the international fortress earlier this month in the last game of the national team’s college tour.

Chasing its seventh-straight Olympic gold in Tokyo next summer, USA Basketball implemented an expanded training program led in part by Bird and Taurasi, which included a college tour against top 10-ranked NCAA teams.

Team USA began their tour sweeping their collegiate opponents aside. In fact, the national team only got more dominant as the tour continued.

They started out at No. 3 Stanford where the national team handed the Cardinal a 15-point loss. They went north to No. 7 Oregon State for a 23-point rout. At No. 6 Texas A&M the national team had its most decisive win yet 93-63 for 30 points.

In the 24-year history of Team USA’s college tour, only once before had the national team lost to a collegiate program and that was 20 years ago to Pat Summit’s three-consecutive NCAA championship team.

In a stunning 93-86 win No. 1 Oregon women’s basketball did what seemed like the unthinkable.

And the cynics poured in.

Within hours of the loss to Oregon women’s basketball, internet trolls and misogynists had taken to Team USA’s social media to vehemently call out the women’s national team for losing to a group of college women.

“Absolutely EMBARRASING... how in the world do a collection of THE BEST PLAYERS IN THE NATION lose to a COLLEGE BASKETBALL TEAM...” one commenter wrote on a USA Basketball Instagram post with the final score.

“Women’s national team gotta blow it up after losing to college players AND THEY WANT TO TALK ABOUT GETTING PAID MORE MONEY,” another user replied, with laughing emojis.

But see, that’s just it.

The Team USA that showed up in Eugene aren’t necessarily the best players in the nation. Sure, some of the long-time greats, including Bird and Taurasi, and up-and-coming rookies, like Napheesa Collier, were on the roster, but some of the very best in American basketball are overseas where they make the bulk of their income.

Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-9 forward, Olympic gold-medalist with Team USA and two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year (to name a few of her accolades) is overseas, as are Tina Charles, Diamond Deshields, Jewell Loyd and 11 other members of the 2019-20 USA Basketball player pool, according to ESPN and Swish Appeal.

That doesn’t even include 2018 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart, who was missing from the national team’s lineup against Oregon because, get this, she’s recovering from a severe Achilles injury that she sustained, you guessed it, overseas.

WNBA stars can make up to 15 times their skimpy WNBA salaries playing for teams in Europe and Asia in the offseason, according to several reports.

There’s the double bind.

As the cynics’ argument goes, the women shouldn’t make more than they’re making domestically because they’re women, they’re boring, they don’t bring the money in and they play like, well, girls, but when they go to a market that’s willing to pay American elite basketball players more than the American market is and the players left behind are beat by a college team, it’s ‘absolutely embarrassing.’

So yes, Team USA lost to a bunch of college kids, and yes, they should’ve won, and yes, the loss is embarrassing and humbling and exactly what the national team didn’t want, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

“Hey we lost. Maybe people won’t follow us now,” Team USA starting guard Sue Bird said after the loss. With 17 years in the WNBA, she knows how people can be.

USA Basketball hopes — despite the loss — that the college tour, which will continue in the new year at UConn on Jan. 27 and Louisville on Feb. 2, will put women’s basketball on track to higher levels of national attention for women’s sports.

“I feel the wave, the wave of interest. I think this is the perfect time to capitalize on that. I think Eugene did it best,” Team USA coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The No. 1 team in the nation gave the No. 1 team in the world a run for its money.

“When you put this jersey on, no one cares if you’re a four-time Olympian or if it’s your first time,” Bird said.

But does that mean the 20-year empire is crumbling? Or is it only getting stronger as these college “kids” graduate, go pro and put on the red, white and blue themselves?

Sierra Webster is a Herald and News sports writer. She can be reached at swebster@heraldandnews.com or 541-885-4440. Follow her on Twitter @WebsterSierraE