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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Leslie Beats Japan One-Handed

Basketball: She sets U.S. Olympic record with 35 points in quarterfinal victory over old-fashioned opponent.

August 01, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — For those who missed Lisa Leslie's 101-point game for Morningside High against South Torrance, there was a bit of a reenactment here Wednesday.

Leslie scored 35 points against Japan, breaking the U.S. Olympic women's scoring record as the Americans cruised to a 108-93 victory, advancing to the semifinals and a rematch with Australia.

For the 6-5 former USC star, it was like posting up Lilliputians. Five inches taller than Japan's center, quicker and a better jumper too, she might have gone for 50 but played only 26 minutes, in which she took 21 shots and made 16.

"I never even knew it [the record, 28, by Medina Dixon in 1992] existed," said Leslie, decked out, as usual, for her trip to the press tent in an outfit that included a Nike baseball cap, pendant and earrings.

"I'm happy about that, personally for me and my teammates because they helped me do it. And also for women's basketball. I think it's great. Whatever it takes to draw attention to us, I'm very happy for."

Coming after South Korea in this nostalgia phase of the Americans' schedule, the Japanese tried dozens of old-fashioned two-handed set shots, suggesting they may have missed a development or two in the game's evolution.

Firing away from long range might have worked for David against Goliath, but as the last two U.S. games against South Korea and Japan suggested, it isn't the way to beat the Americans.

However, like the South Koreans, the Japanese kept playing despite trailing by as many as 21 points, making enough of their high, arching two-handers to cut the final deficit to 15.

"That's the first thing you notice in Japan," said U.S. forward Katy Steding, who, along with teammates Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain, played professionally there. "That two-handed shot.

"I told them it isn't an easy shot to get off on the run. Then they hit about three in my face."

Two-handers were, of course, abandoned long ago in the United States. When guard Takao Kato heard someone in the press tent ask Coach Fumikazu Nakagawa why the Japanese still shoot them, she broke up and started laughing.

"[Asian] players have small hands and they don't have much power so I don't think these are bad shots," Nakagawa said through an interpreter.

"When you look at the success rate of these shots, it doesn't matter if it's a one-handed shot or a two-handed shot."

Ask Tara VanDerveer, coach of the U.S. team. The Japanese tried 32 three-point shots and made 13--a very respectable 41%--keeping them close, if not actually in the game and causing the hard-driving American coach to squirm uncomfortably through the second half.

"I wish we had done maybe a little better job of taking away those three-point shots," VanDerveer said. "To Japan's credit, they got down but they didn't give up. They made a run. That's something I'll watch on videotape, to see how that happened."

VanDerveer can watch videotape all night long, a la Pat Riley, but this is actually a simple problem: The smaller Japanese players hang out on the three-point line, where it's hard for the bigger Americans to get to them.

"It's hard to guard forwards out of the paint," said the 6-foot-2 McClain, who was matched against a 5-10 opponent. "You have to scoot down like a guard."

However, it's easier to scoot than it is to jump. The U.S. had a height advantage of almost four inches per woman on the front line and outrebounded the Japanese, 40-24. McClain had 16, tying the Olympic U.S. women's record.

For her part, Leslie seemed to struggle when this tournament moved from little Morehouse College and its crowds of 6,000, into the Georgia Dome and its crowds of 30,000. She scored only four of her team's 107 points in the 60-point rout of Zaire. No one would have noticed except that she mentioned it later, suggesting she felt bad about it.

A game later, she struggled through a one-for-six first half before bouncing back with 14 points in the second half against the Aussies.

A game later, she made all six of her shots against South Korea. And then came Japan.

Before the Olympics, an excited Leslie gushed that this was "the best year of my life." Despite everything--the U.S. women were evacuated from the Omni hotel in a bomb scare, along with the U.S. men Tuesday--her year keeps getting better.

"Every day it's something new," Leslie said. "We just try to stay focused. We didn't even mention that our hotel was evacuated in our team meeting today. . . . We're not going to let someone out there who's not happy about us being here distract us at all."

It's OK if someone isn't happy the U.S. women are here. Leslie is happy enough for everybody.

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