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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BASKETBALL

It Takes a Little More Time for U.S. to Find That Spark

September 19, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Sheryl Swoopes' WNBA season ended on Aug. 26 with another championship for the Houston Comets.

The season ended Aug. 20 for Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton--with the Sparks' devastating playoff loss to Swoopes and the Comets, a team they had beaten three times during the regular season.

Only a month later, the three plan to stand together on the medal stand Sept. 30 at the Olympics.

They are happy teammates--that part is easy--but those dates show what a hectic summer it has been for the players on the U.S. women's basketball team because of the WNBA season.

The U.S. beat Cuba, 90-61, in its second preliminary-round game Monday in front of 7,298 at the Dome, but the Americans had only a 48-42 lead at halftime.

The final margin was bigger than the U.S. team's 17-point victory over Cuba in Atlanta in 1996. But it was the second time in two games in these Olympics the U.S. has kept it interesting for quite a while, winning by only 14 points over South Korea in its first game.

"I think a lot of people expect us to come out because we're the USA and blow people out," said Swoopes, who is playing on a sore knee and had only 11 points after scoring 29 against South Korea.

"I think we know that teams are going to stay with us--especially in the first half."

This team is just as good as the 1996 team, if not better, but it hasn't spent the past year playing together.

"This team, I think we have more depth," guard Dawn Staley said. "I think our team this year is very talented. But probably we had a little more chemistry in '96 than we do."

One reason for some of the early hiccups might be because the team is still recovering its defensive chemistry after breaking from its six-month training for the WNBA season.

Against South Korea, the U.S. seemed befuddled by the cutting and passing of the smaller team.

Against Cuba, center Yamilet Martinez posed the problem, scoring 17 points in the first half--almost all on the same spin move--after Leslie sat down with her second foul five minutes into the game and Yolanda Griffith followed.

In the second half, the U.S. tightened its defense and Martinez was held to only two more points, sitting down with her fourth foul less than four minutes into the second half.

A 12-0 run--10 of those points right after Martinez sat down--turned a four-point game into the beginnings of a blowout.

With Leslie slowed by foul trouble--she scored 10 points--and Swoopes not 100%, though she expects to be by the medal round, the U.S. depth came through.

Katie Smith scored 15 points off the bench, including three of three from three-point range, and Teresa Edwards, the point guard, added 13.

The instinct is to think that offensive chemistry is more difficult to achieve.

"Actually, defense takes more time," Edwards said. "You've got to learn exactly what you're going to do, how you want to guard different cuts."

Swoopes agreed.

"I think anybody can take the ball and run down the court and score," the WNBA's most valuable player said.

"Defense takes more work, and it takes longer to get to the point where you can trust each other on defense."

Do that, and the U.S. players trust they'll be bowing their heads to accept the gold medal Sept. 30, something Leslie said would help put aside the disappointment of the end of the Sparks' season.

"Mentally at first it was really tough," she said. "It took me about three days to get focused and say, 'All right, that's behind me. I have a new goal. Let's go win a gold.' "

After they do that, Swoopes can finally get a vacation.

"Oh yeah," she said. "I'm coming off a roller coaster. I haven't even had an opportunity to celebrate winning a championship.

"But what will make the vacation even sweeter is being able to say I won a championship and then I won a gold medal."

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