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ATHENS 2004

U.S., Russia Play Games Before Game

Passport Portraits | A series of looks at Olympians from around the world

August 26, 2004|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

No one quite knows where Lisa Leslie heard the rumor.

"I heard they said they'd get their gold-medal shirts ready," Leslie said, shortly after the U.S. women's basketball team had routed Greece on Wednesday. "I don't know what's fact or not. All I know is that I'm playing for the USA," against Russia in the semifinals Friday. Russia's shooting guard, Ilona Korstin, gave reporters a blank look when asked about the alleged gold-medal shirt crack.

"I didn't hear about this.... Oh no, no," she said.

Could Leslie simply have been searching for motivational material? "Maybe. Everybody wants to win, it's normal," Korstin said. "USA wants to win. We want to win. It's Olympics, everyone wants to have a gold medal. We're going to play ... and we'll see."

She wasn't sounding like Joe Namath and guaranteeing victory, but Korstin sounded remarkably confident after Russia's 70-49 victory over the Czech Republic. Korstin had a team-leading 16 points.

"We played last time during the World Championships against USA and we lost by two points," Korstin said, although it was actually a five-point loss in 2002. "We all remember this game and now our team is older and we have more experience and I think we can win against USA."

Swin Cash of the U.S. alluded to the past.

"I know there is no love lost between those two teams, and I know it will be a great matchup," she said. "Since the world championship game, Russia has been waiting for that other opportunity."

Russia, now 33-1 against the Czechs, didn't show all its cards in Wednesday's game.

"We don't play 100% of our ability," Korstin said.

Said Sue Bird of the U.S., "It was a really good game when we played them in China in 2002. They're known for playing better out of pool play. In pool play, they kind of play around, try to get the seed that they want. Once they get out of pool play, it's game time for them."

The Russians will depend on Korstin, of course, and 6-foot-8 Maria Stepanova in the middle against Leslie.

Korstin and Stepanova, 25, have WNBA experience, both having played in Phoenix.

Korstin was there, briefly, and Stepanova played there from 1998-2001, averaging 10.4 points in 2001, and became a fan favorite.

Fans used to hold up signs saying, "Will U Mary Me, Maria?"

But she left Arizona, saying it was too hot there for her infant son. She declined an interview here, saying her English was not good enough.

Korstin, 24, who speaks four languages, confirmed that, saying Stepanova needed an interpreter at Phoenix.

Korstin said she might go back to the WNBA eventually. And there is talk that Stepanova is considering it as well. Korstin said her teammate was a different person since becoming a mother.

"She changed a lot," Korstin said. "Now she takes a lot of care of her child. Spends a lot of time with her child. She is more calm now. I think she became better. Better person.

"Little boy very tall. He is like her."

But he isn't in Athens, watching his mother and her friends play basketball at the highest level.

And you can guess why.

"He's not here because it's very hot," Korstin said. "He stay in Russia."

*

The Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.

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