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OLYMPICS / ATHENS 2004

Easy Tuneups

U.S. women's softball and basketball teams coast in their first outings. The softball team needs only five innings to shut out Italy. The bench energizes basketball squad.

August 15, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — If first impressions Saturday were worth anything at these Olympics, then expect medals from both of the U.S. women's softball and basketball teams. Gold medals.

Playing in the same area, the southern Olympic complex of Helliniko on the grounds of the old Athens airport, the American teams routed opponents in games played just hours apart.

The softball team, carrying on a tradition that has allowed the United States to retain its top world ranking for the last 18 years, used only five of the allotted seven innings to dispose of Italy, 7-0.

With a 5-0 lead in the fifth, UCLA's Natasha Watley, a leadoff hitter known for her slap-and-run singles hitting, slapped a pitch into a huge gap in left-center field with the bases loaded. All three runners scored, but the final score goes into the record books as 7-0, since softball's run rule -- its politically correct version of the old sandlot mercy rule -- says that once a team gets ahead by seven runs, and it stays that way, the game is called in the fifth inning.

The basketball game needed a mercy rule.

New Zealand started fast when its 5-foot-5 guard, Angela Marino, sank a couple of three-point shots. When the game was five minutes old and the score was still tight, U.S. Coach Van Chancellor yanked his first team, brought in the kids and watched an 11-11 tie go to 23-11. It was 63-24 by halftime and 99-47 at the end.

"We were bigger, stronger and deeper," Chancellor said afterward, while turning the postgame news conference into coach-speak and coach-con. With New Zealand Coach Tom Maher sitting right next to him, and Marino next to Maher, Chancellor gushed about how well New Zealand was prepared and coached, and extolled Marino as a great shooter. Marino had made three of 15 shots.

Marino, for her part, was, well, amazed by it all.

"That was the most amazing team I ever played against," she said. "It was just amazing being on the same floor with them."

Swin Cash, one of the U.S. reserves, led the scoring with 19 points. Lisa Leslie of the Sparks got four fouls and 13 points. Diana Taurasi, the pride of Chino and the University of Connecticut, played 22 minutes, got 12 points and a team-leading nine rebounds and said afterward that the second unit played well together and might just be able to handle some of these other international teams by themselves.

Veteran Dawn Staley, a 34-year-old starter with two gold medals to her name, said, as gently as she could, that come Monday, when the U.S. starts facing stronger international teams, "more savvy and experience will be needed."

There is no shortage of either on the U.S. softball team, and much of what happened at Helliniko on Saturday had UCLA ties.

Besides Watley's heroics, veteran Lisa Fernandez played designated player, batted fourth and drove in the first U.S. run; another veteran, Stacey Nuveman, caught the game and handled three pitchers nicely, and pitcher Tonya Harding won one for Australia over Japan in the game preceding U.S.-Italy.

Harding was a UCLA player with Fernandez during one of the Bruins' NCAA title runs in the mid-1990s. She created quite a stir when she arrived from Australia midway through the softball season, sparked the Bruins to an NCAA title and promptly returned to Australia before school ended, telling reporters that she had come to play softball, not to go to school. The "Hired Gun" headlines were not far behind.

Since then, she has been involved in some epic U.S.-Australia Olympic battles, both in Atlanta and Sydney, and had she not been so heroic Saturday against Japan, she probably would be doing it again today, when the teams meet again.

Instead, though, she had to rescue teammate Brooke Wilkins with two outs in the first and two runs in, and wound up pitching 6 1/3 innings, making it unlikely that she will come back to start against the U.S. Harding didn't just step in, she retired 19 of the next 20 Japanese batters after Wilkins had walked five and allowed two runs. When Japan ended up not getting a hit, the Harding-Wilkins duo had one of the strangest no-hitters ever. It was only the fourth time in Olympic history that a combined no-hitter had been turned in.

U.S. pitcher Jennie Finch, the right-hander from La Mirada and the University of Arizona, who has yet to go through an Olympic news conference without being asked how she feels about female athletes posing nude for magazines, had a no-hitter through three innings. But Mike Candrea, the U.S. coach, yanked Finch to save her arm and took a gamble on his veteran, Lori Harrigan.

Harrigan's first pitch was slapped for a single and the no-hitter was over. But the rout was just beginning.

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