ATHENS, Aug. 27 -- The U.S. women's basketball team doesn't get a lot of practice playing close games; unlike the men's team the American women are still the best in the world by a wide margin. But faced with a close game Friday, the United States relied on a couple of its calm, veteran Olympians to narrowly defeat Russia, 66-62, and advance to Saturday's gold medal game against Australia.
"Russia played well," Dawn Staley said. "They played well enough to win the game. They're large, they're long and they will make you make plays. Fortunately, we've got those players. And we're playing with the best player in the world, Lisa Leslie."
Lisa Leslie attempts to pass Russia's Maria Stepanova during their women's basketball semifinal on Friday. The U.S. team won the game, 66-62.
(Adrees Latif - Reuters)
While Russia has six players 6 feet 2 or taller, including 7-foot Maria Stepanova, it was 5-9 guard Oxana Rakhmatulina who shot the Russians to within 60-58 with four minutes to play. But that's when the players Staley mentioned closed out the game for the United States.
Three-time Olympian Sheryl Swoopes, who has been in a shooting slump for most of the tournament, hit a jumper with no time remaining on the shot clock to push the United States to a 62-58 lead. After Russia missed, Swoopes buried a baseline jumper to make it 64-58. After Russia committed a turnover, Leslie, another three-time Olympian, fired a pass to Tina Thompson for the layup that increased the Americans' lead to eight and put the game away.
"Great players show up in times when their teams need them," Tamika Catchings said. "Fortunately, Sheryl was able to come out of her slump down the stretch."
Not one woman on the U.S. team seemed to think struggling in the semifinals hinted at bad news for Saturday. "I think it's good for us, the game before the gold medal game, to go through that," Catchings said. "It's better for us to learn how to play through struggle."
Staley, who coaches Temple's women's team, went further in voicing her appreciation for successfully struggling against a worthy opponent. "It was great," she said, "to be able to put all that we've worked on to the test."
Thompson led the U.S. players in scoring with 14 points. Catchings and Leslie each had 11 points, and Leslie tied Yolanda Griffith with a team-high seven rebounds. Griffith's contribution off the bench and Catchings's ability to help provide extra possessions with two offensive rebounds and five steals helped the United States pull even with 30 points inside, an area the United States is accustomed to dominating.
But the Americans had to battle 7-foot Stepanova, who had 11 points and eight rebounds; 6-4 Elena Baranova, who had 10 points and eight rebounds; and 6-4 Tatiana Shchegoleva, who had 13 points and five rebounds. Leslie is 6-5 and Griffith is 6-4, but the United States is at a decided height disadvantage when playing Russia. But the Americans committed seven fewer turnovers and made 82 percent of their free throw attempts and played just a little better than Russia in just about every area.
Looking ahead to playing Australia, Staley said, "I don't think we'll have as easy a time as the [women's U.S.] softball team had [in beating Australia 5-1], but I hope it's not as difficult as the soccer team," which needed overtime to secure its gold medal Thursday night against Brazil.
AUSTRALIA 88, BRAZIL 75: Australia (7-0) got what it wanted -- a gold medal rematch with the United States.
Lauren Jackson had 26 points and 13 rebounds for Australia, which lost the gold to the Americans four years ago in Sydney, 76-54.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.