LONDON — After France toppled Russia to advance to the Olympic women’s basketball final for the first time in the country’s history, its players celebrated on the court for 15 minutes.
Later, asked how he planned to prepare his squad for the gold medal game against the United States, which hadn’t lost an Olympic women’s basketball game in 20 years, French Coach Pierre Vincent said: “I am going to party.”
When the ball was tipped off Saturday at North Greenwich Arena, there was a widespread sense that for all its historic achievements in London, France simply didn’t have the skill, depth or experience to deny the U.S. women a fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
All that remained was the coronation. And it came 40 minutes later, with the U.S. overcoming a brief spasm of poor shooting early to roll to an 86-50 victory.
The outcome was sealed in the third quarter, in which Candace Parker, who finished with a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds, keyed a 19-0 U.S. run that left the French dazed.
France, which shot just 28 percent against the Americans’ spirited defense, likely couldn’t have beaten the U.S. women if Coach Geno Auriemma slashed his roster in half. But given the Americans’ depth, the challenge facing France was monumental.
The 36-point margin of victory was the largest in a gold medal game since women’s basketball was added to the Olympics in 1976. It brought the U.S women’s record in Olympic competition to 58-3. And it extended the U.S. women’s winning streak in Olympic competition to 41 games, dating from their bronze at Barcelona in 1992.
The Americans entered the game as prohibitive favorites — so much, in fact, that the game itself seemed a pointless exercise. In their undefeated romp through pool play to reach the medal rounds, the U.S. women had won their games by an average of 34 points. France, also unbeaten, had won by eight points and twice was forced to overtime.
The U.S. women were the tournament’s top scorers, averaging 91.3 points per game. They had yet to score fewer than 81 points in a game, while France had yet to score more than 81. The Americans also led all teams in rebounds, blocks and steals.
But the outcome was hardly a foregone conclusion, insisted Bird, who along with Taurasi and Tamika Catchings, claimed her third gold medal in front of a near capacity crowd that included NBA Commissioner David Stern and Kobe Bryant.
“People definitely expect this of us,” Bird said. “They see the scores, and they expect that. But people don’t realize how hard it is to be that consistent. It’s not easy, because if we don’t play well, we’re going to lose, because the teams — all they want to do it beat us.
“It’s very difficult to play your beat game when another team — every team we play — is giving us their best game.”
France made it a fight, at least in the early going, in which the lead changed hands three times.
The Americans had a size advantage but missed multiple layups and struggled to convert what should have been easy shots.
It wasn’t so much nerves, Bird explained later, as a case of simply wanting to win too quickly.
Parker’s entry into the game provided a steadying presence inside, and the U.S. crept out to a 20-15 lead. And though their chemistry wasn’t quite right and shots kept clanging off the rim, the U.S. started creating offense out of defense, forcing turnovers that they converted into easy layups.
Parker, one of two former Tennessee players on a roster laden with former Connecticut Huskies, had an outstanding first half, scoring 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting while grabbing nine rebounds.
With that, the U.S. took an 37-25 lead at the half.
At the break, all they talked about was not letting up in the second half.
And a 19-0 run was the result.
“All we wanted to do was extend the lead and just kind of take France’s hopes away, if you will,” Bird said. “And everybody chipped in.”
Afterward, France’s players were nearly as joyful, having claimed the first Olympic silver medal in the country’s basketball history.
“It is amazing! It is huge!” exulted point guard Celine Dumerc, who was held to eight points by the tough U.S. defense, thrilled over how heavy the silver medal felt around her next. “This is history. This is the first time for France.”
For the United States, a fifth consecutive gold was an even greater reward. And it has become, in its way, a burden of even weightier expectation.
Said Parker, who carried her 3-year-old daughter, Laila, on her hip through much of the celebration that followed: “You never want to be that team that ends the streak.”