When Angel McCoughtry steps on the floor of Basketball Arena in London later this month, she won't play in front of the largest crowd of her life.
In her country's opening game against Croatia on July 28, the Baltimore native won't face the best competition she's ever seen.
But to McCoughtry, the two weeks of basketball at this summer's Olympics will be the most important of her career thus far.
"It's the best honor in the world and the best honor I've received in playing basketball," McCoughtry said. "It's the most important and prestigious sporting event in the world. There's only 12 girls on the USA Olympic team, which means I'm one of the best in the world."
McCoughtry will suit up for the United States this summer in London in her first Olympic Games. The forward came off the bench for Team USA at the 2010 FIBA world championship, helping guide the Americans to a 9-0 finish and a gold medal. The St. Frances graduate scored 11.3 points per game in the tournament, the second most of any of her countrywomen.
After her performance at the world championship in the Czech Republic two years ago, it wasn't a surprise to McCoughtry or her family that she made this year's Olympic roster. But in her first international competition, the 2007 Pan American Games, things didn't go so smoothly.
McCoughtry struggled in her first two games, her father, Roi, said. She wasn't fitting in well with that team, which he said had too many egos. McCoughtry was just the newcomer, a sophomore in college at the time, with no real profile or clout.
But Dawn Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and coach of that Pan American team, saw through the nervous exterior that shadowed McCoughtry in the early stages of that tournament.
"Dawn said, 'Your daughter is really good. She's going to be a special player,'" Roi McCoughtry said. "It took Dawn to look beyond the nervousness and all the girls who didn't really know who Angel was. We couldn't have had a better coach to help her get to the next level."
Staley told McCoughtry she could make the Olympic team in 2012, and that's when her dream of representing her country started to become a reality.
She set Louisville's career scoring record in just over three years and earned a spot on the All-WNBA first team and WNBA All-Defensive first team in 2011. She has led the Atlanta Dream to the WNBA Finals the past two seasons, but the team has been swept, 3-0, both times.
Louisville coach Jeff Walz said McCoughtry's explosiveness will be invaluable to Team USA this summer.
"She can read the next pass and she does a fantastic job of disrupting a team's offense," Walz said. "And she's an all-around great basketball player on both sides of the floor."
McCoughtry's strong, versatile game will be a key component of an American team that is the heavy favorite to take home gold in London, with some oddsmakers favoring the United States as high as 1-10 — meaning a $100 bet would yield just a $10 profit.
"There's no pressure. We just have to take it game by game," McCoughtry said. "We have to be patient. We've got the talent to win, and we'll take it a game at a time."
All 12 players on the roster were top-five picks in WNBA drafts in the past decade, with seven going first overall (including McCoughtry, in 2009). This team has three WNBA Most Valuable Players and nine WNBA titles among them. The roster was cut from 21 finalists to 12 at the end of March and features some of women's basketball's most notable names, including Maya Moore, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi.
McCoughtry said this group of elite players doesn't have a problem getting along. There aren't any big personalities to get in the way.
"Women work together more for the common goal. It's in our nature," McCoughtry said. "We're emotional and we care a lot about working together. We have egos, too, but it's in a different format."
Roi McCoughtry said coach Geno Auriemma, who has won more than 85 percent of his games and seven national titles at Connecticut, does a great job of keeping his players focused and in line. Known for recruiting top high school players and developing them into stars, Auriemma coached half the members of this team at UConn.
"He's such a proven winner and has such a great track record," Roi McCoughtry said. "There's some coaches that have the ability to get the most out of you and have you balanced and level-headed. He's one of them."
Auriemma will be coaching his first Olympics this summer, but with 50 percent of a dominant team returning, he shouldn't have to make too many adjustments.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the United States cruised to gold, going 8-0 while outscoring its opponents by 37.6 points per game. The Americans routed Australia, 92-65, in the gold-medal game.
Six members from that 2008 team and 10 members from the 2010 world championship team will return for the London Games this summer. McCoughtry said this group has a strong foundation because of everyone's experience playing with and against one another in college and in the WNBA.
"I really enjoy most of them and have a good time with them," McCoughtry said. "I'm glad to not have to play against them for once."
Walz said that with the work ethic McCoughtry showed in the two years she played under him in a Cardinals uniform, it isn't surprising to see her don the red, white and blue this summer in London.
But he advised his former player to just soak up the Olympic atmosphere and not get overworked, because it is truly a special experience.
"She needs to take a deep breath and see what she's accomplished," Walz said. "You're not going to worry about her taking a break. She's going to get better every day. But she needs to step back and make sure she takes time to enjoy it and realize what she's accomplished."
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