American University’s Bender Arena was bustling. As the U.S. women’s basketball practice was coming to a close last week, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen took turns putting up a few lighthearted layups. The sound of coach Geno Auriemma’s distinguishable Philadelphia accent bounced off the rafters as he addressed the media at midcourt.
But in a darkened far corner, basketball in tow, Maya Moore was in her own world. Paying no attention to the business going on around her, the 23-year-old stood on the free throw line, looking stately as she put up shot after shot until she missed.
Nine. Swish. Ten. Swish. Eleven.
When the ball bounced off the rim, she swiftly gathered it and without hesitation moved to another spot on the floor. She started all over again.
It’s that kind of focus that has helped Moore’s basketball team end its season with a win six out of the past eight years. She knows how to win championships. Now, she’s preparing to earn a distinction that’s in a category of its own: Olympic gold medalist.
When she’s not on the move, the youngest player on the 2012 U.S. Olympic squad spends her time taking it all in.
“I just watch and make sure I’m paying attention and observing everybody who’s in a position of leadership,” Moore said. “They’re usually there saying the right things when we need to hear it, and I’m just soaking it up and trying to cause chaos of the other team.”
That’s something Moore has been doing her entire career. After leading Collins Hill High School to three straight 5A Georgia state championships, Moore took her talents to Storrs, Conn., to join Auriemma’s five-time national champion Huskies. Moore, who finished her college career a three-time Big East Player of the Year and four-time Associated Press first-team All-American, helped add two titles to that total. She graduated from Connecticut as the Huskies’ all-time leading scorer.
In 2010, Moore played for the United States at the FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic, where it won a gold medal. The only collegiate player on the U.S. roster, Moore’s youth and inexperience stood out.
“Every time Maya turned her head the wrong way, somebody scored. Every time she didn’t get through a screen, somebody scored,” Auriemma said. “She learned a real valuable lesson — I might be more athletic, I might be more talented than any player on the floor, but when it comes to international basketball, it’s a whole different animal.”
It hasn’t even been two years since her first international basketball experience, but already Moore thinks she’s an entirely different player. She said she’s learned the finesse needed to succeed overseas and has grown more accustomed to the European game. All of that makes her that much more prepared to represent her country in London.
“Taking the World Championships away, my half-season in Europe, and just playing in the WNBA with more international players, I think I have a good feel kind of for different players’ games who are making a splash over in Europe,” Moore said. “I’m just feeling a little more confident when I step out there.”
Moore was selected first overall in the 2011 WNBA draft by the Minnesota Lynx and soon became the first female signed to Nike’s Jordan Brand, joining the likes of NBA All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. In her first season, the WNBA Rookie of the Year led her team to a championship. The Lynx, who lead the Western Conference with a 15-4 record, are well on their way to another. But for now, Moore is more than willing to exchange that Minnesota green for red, white and blue.
The intensity with which she approaches the game is seen in her expressions on the court. It’s heard in her voice. She’s antsy to get on the court and help the U.S. win its fifth straight Olympic gold medal. It’s a determination that leaves her male counterparts in awe.
“She doesn’t have any flaws,” said Paul, a member of the men’s U.S. Olympic team. “She’s just a winner. She doesn’t lose.”
Saturday, the U.S. women will begin their quest with a game against Croatia. Moore will be one of five first-time Olympians on the U.S. squad. But she’s hardly fazed by high-pressure games such as the ones in which she’ll play during the next couple of weeks. She knows exactly what she wants. And usually, she’s been successful at getting it.
“We’re hungry,” national team member Angel McCoughtry said. “We want the gold. We want to the experience, to see what it feels like.”
Moore is starving.