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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Bolton Turns Women Into Gang That Shoots Straight

Basketball: She gets hot from outside to lead an easy U.S. victory over Ukraine.

July 24, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Finally, lunch is served.

After days of carrying opponents, USA Basketball put an opponent on ice early. The knockout wasn't delivered by the ballyhooed Dream Team, however, but by the American women, who ran up an 18-point lead by halftime Tuesday and routed Ukraine, 98-65, thanks largely to shooting guard Ruthie Bolton, who scored a game-high 21 points.

Bolton, a former Auburn star, was asked afterward if she wanted to say hello to her hometown. Born in McClain, Miss., raised in Hattiesburg, she wanted to know which one.

"McClain's real small," she said. "I know they don't have a station."

Bolton made seven of 10 shots, including two of four three-point tries, a happy sign for the Americans. U.S. collegians play with a smaller ball and a shorter three-point line and shooting has been a problem in international competition.

At Barcelona four years ago, the Americans, two-time defending gold medalists, polished off all opponents handily until they went cold against the Unified Team, what was left then of the Soviet Union.

At these games, Cuba's coach, Miguel Del Rio Lopez, suggested that shooting might still be a problem for the U.S. so Coach Tara VanDerveer must have been happy to see her team make four of eight threes.

On the other hand, she wasn't conceding anything. What, her worry?

"We have really good shooters on our team and, quite honestly, I have a lot of confidence in 'em," VanDerveer said. "And if I don't, I either won't play 'em or I'll tell 'em not to shoot.

"Some of it's a little bit contagious. If Ruthie gets her shot going, sometimes it affects Sheryl [Swoopes] in a positive way, and Katy [Steding].

"I just remember a coach, Fred Taylor from Ohio State, he said, 'You can't choke in a T-shirt.' It's like the more people talk about it, the more our team gets worried about it. I'm like, if other people want to say we don't have good shooting, go ahead. We'll prove 'em wrong, is my attitude."

The teams that took the floor Tuesday had played seven games--of which the U.S. won seven--and numerous scrimmages in the last year and knew each other so well, VanDerveer joked the Ukrainians were their "cousins."

Actually, they were opposites. The Americans were quick, athletic and lithe. The Ukrainians were big, shot well--and couldn't begin to deal with the U.S. pressure defense.

Two Ukrainians, point guard Yelena Zhirko and forward Marina Tkachenko, were members of the Unified Team that upset the Americans at Barcelona, but the further split of the old Soviet athletic empire put them on a new, weaker team.

One sensed things weren't going well for them when Lisa Leslie scored on a layup, was fouled and made the free throw--five seconds into the game.

The Americans made eight of their first 12 shots, including both of Bolton's three-point tries and a two-point basket. The Americans grabbed a 23-11 lead and never looked back.

"I don't remember that," said Bolton, giving new dimension to the word unconscious.

"My teammates sometimes call me 'the Microwave'--instant offense. I really don't think anything about it. I don't try to make things happen. They just happen."

The Microwave is merely happy to be plugged in. In early June, she was sidelined for a month because of a knee injury, suffered in an exhibition against Canada that, she feared, had canceled her ticket to the Games.

"The next morning when I woke up, my leg was really stiff," Bolton said. "The Olympics just flashed in front of my eyes, me not being able to play. I was really scared.

"I was supposed to see the doctor two days later and I was so afraid that he was going to tell me that I couldn't play and I had to have surgery. When he told me I would be about three or four weeks, I celebrated."

The Ukrainians took their licking stolidly. Assistant Vladimir Kovanov, spoke at the postgame news conference in place of Coach Volodymyr Ryzhyov.

"Our main coach never comes to the press conference until the end of the Games," Kovanov said through an interpreter.

"Does he know Pat Riley?" asked a U.S. basketball writer.

Kovanov praised the Americans. "We know they are a great team," he said. "We knew this would be the most challenging game and the most interesting game for us."

He was right about the challenging part, anyway.

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