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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BASKETBALL

U.S. Gets Pushed by Russia

September 21, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Hello, America. Are you listening yet?

Teresa Edwards keeps saying the world is catching up.

Now we've seen it, after an 88-77 victory over Russia on Wednesday that was the closest game the U.S. women's basketball team has played in the last two Olympics.

The short-handed Russians led by eight points in the first half and by three at halftime despite using only nine players.

No team ever led the U.S. at halftime in Atlanta in 1996.

"You believe me yet?" said Edwards, a five-time Olympian who has three gold medals and a bronze. "I think that's the way it is.

"I've watched the game grow. These girls got game in these other countries. They have skills, and they're watching us and picking things up. It's something to be admired and respected, and hopefully it elevates us to another level.

"But it's there. It's real."

The Russians, then the Unified Team, were the last team to beat the U.S. in the Olympics, in the 1992 semifinals when the Americans came home from Barcelona with a bronze.

At the 1998 world championships, the Russians led by nine at halftime of the title game before the U.S. won.

In these Olympics, Russia, Australia and even South Korea are viable threats to give the U.S. a game, though the Americans remain the favorite.

Already, two of their three games have been closer than any game they played at Atlanta. This team has more talent but less chemistry than the 1996 team that spent a full year touring together, compiling a 60-0 record on its way to the gold.

"People just want to say the Americans are going to win it," said Edwards, 36. "It's not that way. We're going to have to earn this thing, and when we do win it, you better tell us we earned it."

The Russians kept the U.S. on the ropes Wednesday in their preliminary-round game at the Dome, the third for both teams.

The U.S. took the lead for good, 52-50, on Nikki McCray's three-point basket three minutes into the second half, and Ruthie Bolton-Holifield made two key three-pointers off the bench to help open a 10-point lead.

But the Russians hung tough--they trailed by five with about eight minutes left--even though they were missing two key players because of injuries as well as the country's top player, Elena Baranova, who isn't with the team after sitting out the WNBA season because of knee surgery.

"Remember, I told you. They're strong-hearted," Edwards said. "It's going to be a 40-minute game. The Russians are no joke. I know them."

The Russians are most upset at being without point guard Irina Soumnikova, 35, whose Olympic career is over after she was struck in the face by a Cuban player's elbow in Russia's opening game, requiring plastic surgery on her face and breaking her right wrist in the fall.

Russian Coach Evgeny Gomelsky continued to say he is "indignant" over the elbow by Cuba's Maria Leon, who claimed it was an accident.

Russia also was without forward Ioulia Skopa, who has a sore knee, and chose not to use a third player, 17-year-old Olga Artechina.

Connecticut star Svetlana Abrosimova contributed 12 points off the bench, but Anna Arkhipova lit up the U.S. defense, scoring 15 points and making four of four three-pointers.

"They were hitting some big shots," Edwards said. "Really nice shots."

Defense continues to be the issue for a team that has such remarkably skilled offensive players as Lisa Leslie, who scored 18 points, and Sheryl Swoopes, who scored 16 and seemingly can take a defender one-on-one any time she wants.

Yolanda Griffith had the best all-around game, with 16 points on seven-of-eight shooting, 11 rebounds and two steals.

It was those open shots on the other end that were worrisome.

"Defense is definitely a concern with the coaches right now," Edwards said.

"Hopefully we'll clean it up and do what people think we should do: Make you bored."

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