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Atlanta 1996 Olympics / The Countdown: 5 Days to the
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U.S. Women Prove Perfectly Commanding

Basketball: Leslie scores 24 points in 86-46 rout of Italy as team ends exhibition play 52-0.

July 14, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANAPOLIS — After a training camp that lasted nine months and touched every significant land mass but South America and Antarctica, the U.S. women's basketball team arrived, happy to be unbeaten, even happier to end its preseason.

The Americans played here once before, but when you play 52 exhibitions, you may have to revisit a site or two.

Italy, the opponent, fell convincingly, the Americans closing with a 41-4 run in the last 16:28 to win, 86-46, Saturday night to go 52-0.

"I think our team is ready," said Lisa Leslie after scoring 24 points in 21 minutes. "This is about as ready as we can get."

One would hope so. After third-place finishes at Barcelona in 1992 and the World Championships in 1994, the United States assembled a national team a year early, rather than a couple of months before. Players were paid $50,000 to forego playing overseas.

The first tryouts were last October. There were trips to Russia, Ukraine, China and Australia. The schedule was so overwhelming, the players were only issued three months of it at a time.

Asked if it took a toll om them, Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes said, "Yeah," almost in unison.

"We had a break, I guess, two, three, four weeks ago," Swoopes said. "I think the thing is, when we made the team, we knew what the commitment was going to be. We knew it was going to take a toll on our bodies. But I think we have eight games left [in the Olympics] and I definitely know we're going to be ready when we get to Atlanta."

The tour was put together by USA Basketball officials, including Stanford's Tara VanDerveer, who took a year off to coach this team. VanDerveer said U.S. women's basketball isn't "head and shoulders above the rest of the world" and restored the work ethic.

"I think we're arrogant," VanDerveer said, "to think we can just take a team, practice together for two or three weeks and expect them to play a team sport without giving them the opportunity to train together and practice together.

"I don't like to use the word 'experiment' when I'm involved in it. I would say this was a great program. It was put together with a lot of thought and preparation. We had some excellent people involved at USA Basketball.

"We have been together for a while. It's kind of funny to come back to a place we played during the year. It feels like a different life. When we were here before, it was back in December, it was freezing and things like that."

VanDerveer let the players go home after their last game June 15, the one-point win over Russia in Chicago. NBA coaches fret when their teams don't play for three days; VanDerveer's was off for 28.

Thus it wasn't a total surprise when the American second unit was overrun by the Italian reserves in the first half. Italy came from 19-10 down and actually took the lead, 33-31, late in the half, angering the Americans to a woman.

"We don't like to go into the locker room tied or one down," said Swoopes, scowling. "Tara is not a very good sight to see at that point."

The Americans stepped up their pressure defense. The Italians wilted, swooned, watched, ran around in circles and in general, weren't there.

With 16:28 left, Italy's Viviana Ballabio made a three-point shot. The Italians made two more baskets, one with :34 left. They didn't shoot a free throw all game.

"After this game, I have the same opinion I had before," Italian Coach Riccardo Sales said. "This is a great team."

It's a happy team too, only a week from a game that counts.

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