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ATHENS 2004

Swoopes Has Right Timing

She scores only six points, but four come near the end of a 66-62 win over Russia. U.S. will play Australia for the gold.

August 28, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Like people going to work at the insurance office, the U.S. women's basketball team continued its march to the Olympic gold medal here Friday.

The U.S. beat Russia, 66-62, in the first of two semifinals. Australia then beat Brazil, 88-75, and today the U.S. will play Australia for the gold, same as it did in Sydney in 2000.

Any U.S.-Russia matchup connotes tension and drama -- a fight to the end. Russia, either alone or as part of the Soviet Union, has been one of the few challengers to U.S. Olympic gold in this event, having won in 1976 and '80 (when the U.S. wasn't there) and in '92 in Barcelona, when the Unified Team beat the Americans in the semifinals and the U.S. had to settle for bronze.

But Friday's matchup produced spotty basketball, minimal tension and a docile ending.

The U.S. led most of the way and kept sneaking out to seven- and nine-point leads. But, unable to handle prosperity, the Americans let the Russians back in with ill-advised fouls and bad shots.

Eventually, when the clock told him it was time take control, U.S. Coach Van Chancellor, who now has a 37-0 record in international competition, called time and set up a play for Sheryl Swoopes, whom he has coached for years at Houston in the WNBA.

Swoopes ignored the play, cut away from the pick that was set for her and, with 3 minutes 51 seconds left, scored on a short jump shot that put the U.S. ahead, 62-58. After a Russian miss and a rebound by Swoopes, the former Texas Tech star got open again along the left baseline and scored again. When Russia turned the ball over, Tina Thompson cut through the middle, took a pass from Lisa Leslie and made the layup that finished the Russians.

Or, maybe, the Russians finished themselves.

When Thompson's layup dropped in, making the score 66-58, 2:39 remained. But the Russians made no attempt to foul to stop the clock as the U.S. ran down the clock in four ensuing possessions. The explanation afterward was that this is the way international basketball is played.

So it ended and a crowd, listed at 3,740 but looking more like 1,000, filed out.

Chancellor, who had praised Greece's offense as if it had been the Detroit Pistons' after his team's 102-72 squeaker in the quarterfinals, gushed about the Russians, then explained his going to Swoopes.

"I've been with her for seven years and in that time, she has made me into a fair coach," he said. "As long as she has been with me, she has made the big plays in the big games. I just went with who got me here."

It could also be said that Swoopes was due. She finished the game with six points, on two-of-eight shooting. Thompson led with 14.

Dawn Staley, U.S. point guard who, like Leslie and Swoopes, is looking for her third gold medal, said afterward that the finish bore out what she has been saying since the start -- that this team would win because its veterans would come through at key moments.

"We are trying to pass the torch here to the younger players," Staley said. "We have stressed to them that we don't want to be the group not to win the gold medal."

That has been a while. The last U.S. women's Olympic loss was to the Soviet Union in '92. Then they started a new streak by winning the bronze-medal game. Friday's victory put that streak at 24.

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