SEATTLE, AUG. 5 -- There was a certain sense of sadness enveloping the victorious U.S. women's basketball team today as the players left the court after beating the Soviet Union for a second time to win the Goodwill Games gold medal.

The best women's basketball team in the world -- and the United States's most successful international basketball team, counting men and women -- was breaking up. Some were going back to college. Others were going to join professional teams in Japan or Italy. But they were not going to stay together.

"Throughout the trip, I kept thinking, 'I want to go home,' " said veteran superstar Lynette Woodard, who scored seven points in the United States's 82-70 victory over the Soviets at the Seattle Center Arena.

"But I got up this morning and said, 'Wow, it's here. The last day.' And I wanted to slow it down, take an extra look around. We got the job done and that's great. But now it's over."

Two weeks ago, they won the world championships in Malaysia. Now, they are Goodwill Games champions. They have won 41 consecutive games in major international competition. Their last loss was in the finals of the world championships in 1983. They have won everything in sight and are slowly but surely filling the vacuum left by the poor performance of the U.S. men's team, which has had trouble playing internationally and lost twice here.

"It's unfortunate and that's kind of a left-handed compliment, but people want to see a winner," said U.S. Coach Theresa Grentz of Rutgers University. "I wish more people would come and see this. They would have seen a couple of moves today they would not have believed. People don't know women can play like this. Somehow, we've got to get them there. Then we can get them hooked on it. But we've got to get them to the game."

After a jittery first half in which they still led, 43-33, the Americans rolled to an 80-55 second-half lead before the Soviets, playing against U.S. reserves, scored the last 11 points of the game. The Americans outscored the Soviets by only two points in the second half; overall at the Games, the United States outscored opponents, 220-171, in the second half.

There hardly was a doubt the Americans would win, but it didn't hurt matters that Soviet point guard Irina Soumnikova, considered the Soviets' strongest player by the U.S. team, fouled out with 16:27 remaining.

"We wanted to keep as much pressure on them as we could in the back court," said Grentz.

The U.S. players, some of whom have played together since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, came together Memorial Day weekend. The reason they were so successful was that many of them have international experience, playing in the Olympics or world championships.

"Five or six of us have had the opportunity to play {professionally} internationally," said Woodard, the first woman Harlem Globetrotter, who has signed a six-figure deal to play in Japan this year.

"We play overseas all the time. We know the kind of competition we will face. With the men, those guys are in college and don't know the international game."

Woodard, who will be 31 in a week, was playing collegiately at Kansas 10 years ago. She has watched the sport and the opportunities it provides change so much in the '80s. She sees players now who know strategy and techniques most didn't know existed in 1980. The women now go to camps, have excellent coaches and some play in full college arenas. In fact, in Seattle last year, the University of Washington women's basketball team outdrew the men's team in season attendance.

"I like to think the glass is half-full," she said. "I've got to keep hoping that the media will continue to push. You don't know how strong the ripple effect is. Think of all the little girls watching on TV today. They finally have role models in women's basketball. That's a good thing."

Still, there is no U.S. pro league for women, although people have tried, and failed. There is a ways to go.

And that's why the best women basketball players go a long way away to play their sport. Most of the best have agents. They do sign six-figure deals with Italian and Japanese teams and end up with Danny Ferry-style deals: room, board and all the pasta (or sushi) you can eat.

Woodard will go to Tokyo in October and play until mid-March, which allows her time in the summer to play on U.S. national teams.

When she played in Italy, she was recognized on the street. It probably will happen in Japan too.

"It's a nice feeling," she said.

This is a good time for women's basketball in the United States, perhaps its best ever. The U.S. women know they have opportunities.

"I think people will take note," Woodard said. "This has happened. It's good for us. Maybe one day, not in my time, but 10 years from now, people will care more. I'd love to see it."