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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

U.S. Is Out to Prove That It's Still No. 1

September 14, 2002|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. women had enough of a burden trying to defend their title in the 2002 FIBA Women's World Basketball Championship that begins today in China.

Now there is added pressure thanks to the stumbling performance by the U.S. men's team, which lost three of its last four games and finished sixth in the recent world tournament in Indianapolis.

"It's not anything really spoken, but as individuals we're feeling [the pressure]," said DeLisha Milton, one of three Spark players on the 12-woman USA Basketball squad. "For the men to fall three times, it was unheard of. We don't want that to happen. We don't want the ridicule back home."

The gap that has narrowed between the U.S. men and the rest of the world is also closing in the women's game. At least, that is what the rest of the world hopes to prove over the next two weeks.

There are 16 teams in the 2002 FIBA tournament, which will be played in nine Chinese cities from today through Sept. 25. Team USA is in Group C along with Russia, Lithuania and Chinese Taipei. The Americans open against Russia in Zhangjiagang.

Twelve top-flight WNBA players comprise the U.S. team. Besides Milton, Tamecka Dixon and Lisa Leslie of the Sparks, the USA roster has league most valuable player Sheryl Swoopes (Houston), Sue Bird (Seattle), Tamika Catchings (Indiana), Jennifer Gillom (Phoenix), Shannon Johnson (Orlando), Tari Phillips (New York), Katie Smith (Minnesota), Dawn Staley (Charlotte) and Natalie Williams (Utah).

They will see some familiar faces in opposing uniforms. Brazil has six WNBA players, including Spark reserve center Erika DeSouza. Australia has four WNBA players; France, Russia and Yugoslavia have two each, and Senegal has one.

The U.S. has a 71-20 record and has won six championships since the FIBA tournament began in 1953. But since 1986 the Americans have been dominant, winning three of four tournaments while going 31-1. In their three gold medal-winning years--1986, 1990 and 1998--they were undefeated (24-0).

Whether the Americans can maintain that level of superiority in this tournament remains to be seen. They are not lacking confidence, however, after sweeping through the Opals World Challenge last week in Australia.

Milton warned against complacency, though.

"Internationally, the game has changed," she said. "Now [the rest of the world is] just as athletic, plays smart basketball and is very physical. Athleticism can get you so far. But when you can look at teammates and know what's going on without having to think, that outweighs athleticism."

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