ATHENS, Aug. 28 -- The stars of this era were up on the podium Saturday afternoon, Dawn Staley standing a few feet from Lisa Leslie with Sheryl Swoopes nearby. Leslie, the tall, striking center, pointed one finger skyward and then repeatedly held up three, one for each Olympic gold medal the trio has won.
But elsewhere on the stand, there was a different reaction. Tina Thompson bent over, looking quite ready to have her gold medal draped around her neck. Yet it turns out, she wasn't prepared at all. As the hardware passed over her head, she began to cry, then sob. Second fiddle most of her career, she picked Saturday -- in the gold medal game against Australia -- to take the lead, carrying that band of merry veterans along with her.
Lisa Leslie takes a shot past Australia's Suzy Batkovic during the United States' 74-63 win over Australia in the gold medal game.
(Lucy Nicholson - Reuters)
"This is the biggest prize," she said. "It means everything."
Thompson meant everything to the U.S. women's team in a 74-63 victory over the game Aussies at Olympic Indoor Hall, a victory that gave the U.S. team the gold medal for the third time in a row -- and, by no doing of its own, provided a stark contrast with the U.S. men's team, which came here and flailed.
Thompson, a 6-foot-2 forward, led the way with 18 points, showing toughness when the Americans needed just that. Staley, the feisty emotional leader of the U.S. women for the past decade-and-a-half -- who announced her retirement from international play immediately following the game -- added 14 in just 18 minutes of play, all while imploring her teammates to understand what this was about. And Leslie, the graceful face of the women's game, not only added 13 points and eight rebounds but neutralized Australian star Lauren Jackson, who was held to 12 points, half her average during the tournament.
"We thought that it could be possible," Thompson said. "But now, it's happened, and there's no denying it. We have the hardware to prove it. That's great. It's awesome."
Especially for Thompson. During her career at Southern California, she was overshadowed by the dynamic Leslie. Then, in the WNBA, she came to the Houston Comets to find only enough spotlight for Cynthia Cooper and Swoopes. And in 2000, when she figured to get her first chance at a gold medal, a combination of injury and oversight left her off the roster.
Saturday night, though, there was no overlooking her. Australia, led by slashing guard Penny Taylor and her 16 points, seized a 34-30 lead in the third quarter. This was a position largely unfamiliar to the U.S. women. But unlike the American men -- who came here without a single player with prior Olympic experience -- the women had somewhere to turn.
"Your palms start to sweat," said backup guard Shannon Johnson, who added 12 crucial points. "But when you play with players like Dawn, Sheryl and Lisa -- I mean, you saw them. They were ready. They were ready to play. Whatever happened, no matter who was out there on the court, those three kept leading us."
Thompson, more than anyone, took the cue. She went to work down low, scoring on a turnaround from the left baseline, then repeating the move on the next possession. On one basket, she looked exactly like former Celtic great Kevin McHale, pivoting once with an up-fake, then twice, then finally releasing a shot over a befuddled defender.
"I think Kevin McHale's cool," Thompson said.
She helped the Americans take the lead again, and when the Australians threatened early in the fourth quarter, she went inside for a tough move underneath -- bodies all around her -- grabbed her own rebound and laid the ball back in.
"She comes in here, and she has 18 points," U.S. Coach Van Chancellor said. "And they were all clutch. You feel like a proud father."
The Americans, too, proved they could play in the clutch. In the two previous Olympics, they beat opponents by an average of 25 points. But, as in the men's game, international players are closing the gap. The U.S. women, though, wouldn't allow it to be closed yet -- not here, not now.
"That time when we were fighting to come back, that meant more to us than being up by 40," Johnson said. "It showed the heart of this team, that we could get down [and come back]. Everybody thought that if we got down, we would crumble."
If there was any crumbling, it came on the part of Jackson, the brilliant 6-5 forward who had openly said she wanted to face the United States for the gold medal. Leslie took note, and sacrificed her own offensive production to harass Jackson.
"That's a pleasure for me," Leslie said. "Obviously, Lauren's had a lot to say over this whole period of being here at the Olympics and wanting to play the USA. . . . I was able to stay in her face and make her shoot tough shots."
Jackson made just 4 of 16 shots from the field, and was one of several Australian players who wept openly afterward. The Aussies -- buoyed by a fun and frenzied cheering section -- had never come this close to the U.S. women in 13 meetings, yet it still hurt.
No one, though, shed more tears than Thompson. When Chancellor, her coach in Houston, walked into the locker room and saw her afterward, he told her what it meant.
"You put four championship rings on my finger," Chancellor said, "and you come into a tough game and give me a championship here. Coaches don't get medals, but I've got one around my heart right now."