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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | BASKETBALL

Bruising Game Slows but Fails to Stop Women

September 28, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — They call DeLisha Milton "Sunshine."

She was a storm about to strike Wednesday before Lisa Leslie grabbed her from behind to keep her from retaliating after Slovakia's Renata Hirakova slung an elbow at Milton's face, knocking her to the floor during the U.S. women's 58-43 quarterfinal victory.

The game was physical and nasty, and even though the result seemed certain, it was a low-water mark in scoring for the Americans, who had never finished with fewer than 77 points in an Olympic basketball game.

The previous mark came in a gold-medal victory over Yugoslavia in 1988.

Things threatened to turn ugly late in the second half when Hirakova threw an elbow at Milton after Milton tried to poke the ball free.

But Leslie--adding international peacekeeper to her role as leading scorer--grabbed Milton, a teammate on the Sparks also known as D-Nasty, and gave her a quick but emphatic counseling session.

"I told DeLisha that I recognized that she got hit, and that I thought she had to really calm down," said Leslie, who led all scorers with 18 points. "To recognize where we are. We're at the Olympics, and if it were anywhere else, we could have taken care of her. But since we weren't, to really keep her composure.

"She listened and looked over at our bench and saw the red, white and blue, and she was able to calm down."

Milton, who earned her nickname for her sunny demeanor, declined to talk about the near-incident after the game.

It was probably just as well.

It was a game happily forgotten, as the U.S. took another step toward defending its 1996 gold medal by advancing to a semifinal Friday against South Korea, the team the U.S. defeated in its opening game, 89-75.

"We've played them once already," Coach Nell Fortner said. "At least we've got that one under our belt. We know what we're up against."

South Korea's quick passing and shooting gave the U.S. team some defensive problems in the first game, but the Americans turned a five-point lead early in the second half into an easy victory.

"I think there's a couple of different things we'll do this time, but I think it's good we've played them once, because their style is definitely different than Slovakia, different than Russia, different than anybody else here at this tournament," Fortner said.

Barring a monumental upset, the U.S. will meet the winner of the other semifinal between Australia and Brazil for the gold medal Saturday.

The semifinal atmosphere should be different from the one provided by the late-night crowd of 14,605 Wednesday at the SuperDome.

A band of Slovakian athletes, mostly men's water polo and tennis players, gathered in a group of seats down low and stomped and twirled noisemakers almost the entire game.

It was enough to give anyone a headache.

"They had their little corner. We spotted it before the game. That was our motivation," forward Yolanda Griffith said.

The Slovakian team reached the quarterfinals despite a 16-point loss to Brazil, a seven-point loss to France and a 23-point loss to Australia.

It was not a team the U.S. players enjoyed playing, and they complained a bit afterward.

"They brought the level of the game down," Griffith said. "That probably was the way they played, trying to get into our heads. Maybe there were cheap shots out there, but we were not going to worry about it."

Easy to say, hard to do.

"It was very tough to play that game," point guard Teresa Edwards said. "It's just a matter of accepting what the referees are going to give you and adjusting. I don't think I did a good job of leading today. I kind of got frustrated."

A little like Milton.

Fortunately, there was always someone to calm the others down.

"It's everybody's job to do that," Sheryl Swoopes said. "They just want us to retaliate, they're trying to get us thrown out of the game.

"We have to expect people to be really physical."

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