WASHINGTON - The depth of USA women's basketball is its greatest weapon. Truth is, it's as dreamy a team as ever has worn sneakers on a floor or field.
But how to make the 12 pieces fit without fraying them is what will keep coach Geno Auriemma thinking until the 2012 London Games end. It's a good problem to have, certainly, but a problem nonetheless.
On Monday night, the versatility of the team expected to win a fifth straight gold medal was displayed at the Verizon Center when team USA drubbed Brazil, 99-67, in its final action before the Olympics.
When the team took the floor for pregame introductions Sue Bird, perhaps the best point guard in the world, was not there. She left the team Sunday due to the death of her stepfather. The program does not know when she will return.
"She can take as much time as she needs," said Auriemma, her former college coach at UConn.
So Auriemma turned to Lindsay Whalen, the former Connecticut Sun all-star who helped lead Minnesota to its first WNBA championship last season. And Whalen ran with the ball.
"When Lindsay has the ball in her hands and her head is down you can tell that all she is interested in doing is moving the chains," Auriemma said. "And you can see how everyone just gets out of her way."
It was like Aretha Franklin stepping in for Ella Fitzgerald; different tone, same sweet beat.
Whalen led the USA with 21 points and five assists.
"I just wanted to pick up for Sue and show the team that I could lead them," said Whalen.
Diana Taurasi scored 16 and had seven assists in nearly 24 minutes in her first game action since May 26. Five USA players scored in double figures; Seimone Augustus had 12 points and Tina Charles and Maya Moore had 11 each. Charles, the Sun center and most prolific rebounder in the WNBA, had 10 rebounds.
Whalen, in her first Olympics, had 10 points and three assists in the first quarter to help the USA build a 27-14 lead. She added four points in the second as the lead went to 20, 51-31.
"Whalen is a great guard," said Brazil's Izzy Castro Marques, a longtime WNBA player, who led Brazil with 21 points. "She's just as good as Sue Bird. And she did a great job."
Early Tuesday, a few hours after the USA men also played Brazil, the entire USA Basketball traveling party boarded a charter flight for Manchester, England. That's where the women will initially begin the final phase of training for their Olympic opener July 28 against Croatia.
What happens with personnel that day is still subject to fate and health, but on Monday Auriemma started Tamika Catchings, Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles, Taurasi and Whalen.
Taurasi's inclusion is the surest evidence that her leg injuries, which have limited her to 36 minutes during the first half of the WNBA season, are healed.
"I felt pretty good," said Taurasi. "It's been a long time since I played in a game, but playing next to someone like Lindsay Whalen makes it so much easier because all you need to do is run and she will find you open."
And that combination lit a quick fire as the USA opened an 11-2 lead.
Whalen deftly led the her team with her trademark offensive guile and proved to be a perfect complement to the dynamic Taurasi, who looked effortless in her first sustained action since scoring 18 points in 26 minutes for the Phoenix Mercury against Los Angeles "basically on one leg."
Then again, this was never a contest. Taurasi made her first shot and the USA was quickly up 7-0. With 4:52 remaining in the first quarter, Brazil called a timeout after a fastbreak basket by Augustus. It was 13-2 and the USA was just getting started.
Auriemma substituted liberally, beginning with Augustus, who came in for Whalen. Then Moore, Charles and Swin Cash entered. Only Ashja Jones, resting a sore left foot, did not play.
Charles, who is having an MVP season for the Sun, picked up a joint technical foul with Marques with 1:28 to play in the first quarter when they got themselves tangled near Brazil's basket. That play and a rally that cut the USA lead to 27-14 late in the quarter were Brazil's most energetic moments.