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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | Basketball

U.S. Women Feel on Top of the World

Basketball: Their mission is finally accomplished with impressive victory over Brazil for gold medal.

August 05, 1996|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Now they're a Dream Team too, or II.

Of the American basketball teams here, the men were the ones with the title, but the women were the ones with the dream. They nurtured it for 10 months on the road that led them to the Georgia Dome, where they polished off Brazil, 111-87, Sunday night and saw it come true.

"I can't top what's happened today," said point guard Teresa Edwards, whose three gold medals and one bronze make her the most decorated basketball player in Olympic history.

"I don't think I can top this in my career, being where I've come from, from the youngest one on that [1984] team to the oldest one on this one.

"These players, my teammates, have been through a lot, on and off the court. It's a new process for women's basketball, the adrenaline, the momentum. . . . We've had to carry a lot on our shoulders, and we didn't waver with it.

"We just had to cap it off with this gold medal today. We really had to. We deserved that, after all we've been through."

They enjoyed it too. These were the same explosive, effusive Brazilians who came from 20 points behind to stun them at the 1994 World Championships in Sydney, a defeat that shook U.S. women's basketball and ultimately the world.

This was a truly overpowering American team, big, tough, athletic and cohesive, led by a hard-driving coach, Tara VanDerveer, one of the world's great point guards, Edwards, and a rising star named Lisa Leslie, who suggested in this tournament that she's the Shaq of women's basketball.

Leslie scored 29 points Sunday, giving her a run of 35-22-29 in the medal round, in which she went 38 for 51 from the floor. Her games against Australia and Brazil are the top scoring games in U.S. women's Olympic history.

The American women waited two years for this game, grinding their teeth at the memories of the night in Sydney when both teams wound up on the same bus.

The Brazilians whooped it up. The Americans, who were in a bad mood, didn't like it. Even VanDerveer, trying to defuse the issue last week--"They were having a great time and you know how Brazil is, they celebrate"--still noted they had "rubbed it in a little bit."

Of course, after 10 grueling months and 60 games on four continents, the last thing the U.S. needed was more motivation.

The Americans came out blazing--Ruthie Bolton was so pumped up, she took her first shot from 28 feet and made it--but so did Brazil.

In the most entertaining half of the basketball competition, the teams smoked their way up and down the floor, matching each other shot for shot, drive for drive. At one point, the Americans scored on five possession in a row and the Brazilians scored on four.

Meanwhile, Leslie was thinking about getting into this game.

Her first few minutes consisted of letting Brazil's Marta Sobral drive by her, letting various Brazilians jump over her back for rebounds and getting benched by VanDerveer.

Leslie said later that Edwards had suggested she stay out of foul trouble. When Leslie went back in, Edwards issued another set of orders.

"I came back in," said Leslie, "and Teresa pulled me to the side and said, 'We need you to play the way you've been playing the whole year and take it to 'em. And when you get inside, I want you to finish.'

"So that was my wake-up call."

There was more bad news for Brazil. The 6-2 Sobral, Brazil's best big woman, came out with three fouls. Three starters played the full 20 minutes in the first half and they sagged. By halftime, it was U.S. 57, Brazil 46.

Then the Americans went 8-0 to start the second half and the rout was on.

"I think our team recognized the situation," VanDerveer said. "Here we played 59 1/2 games, we're 20 minutes away from our goal."

It has been almost two years since VanDerveer accepted the job as coach of this team, for which she left her job at Stanford for a year to run a program budgeted at $3 million.

Not that there was any pressure that went with it or anything.

"It was explained to me by C.M. Newton, who is president of USA Basketball, that this is not about silver, this is not about bronze," VanDerveer said. "This is about gold, and I'm glad that we could accomplish that goal."

Proving you don't have to be Brazilian to celebrate, the American women cried, danced and took a victory lap around the floor. Three, including the taciturn Edwards, did cartwheels on the court.

Bolton embraced her father, a minister who carried a large framed picture of Ruthie's mother, who died a year ago. Ruthie gave her gold medal to her older sister, Maeola, who went out for the '88 team and was cut.

"Tomorrow, I'll wake up and think I should be going running, I should be going to practice," VanDerveer said. "I'll probably want to holler at Ruthie and Lisa about one more shot they could have made."

Then she'll remember, smile, turn over and go back to sleep.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Medalists / Basketball

Women

GOLD: United States

SILVER: Brazil

BRONZE: Australia

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