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BEIJING 2008 / WOMEN'S BASKETBALL

U.S. has Russia, revenge on mind

August 21, 2008|K.C. Johnson | Chicago Tribune

BEIJING -- The Olympic women's basketball semifinal between the U.S. and Russia needed another subplot the way three-time gold medalist Lisa Leslie needed "Star-Spangled Banner" lyrics.

Yet there it is, South Dakotan Becky Hammon wearing the red and white -- but no blue -- of Russia, a move Leslie initially described as "un-American."

This story line piles on top of Russia upsetting the Americans in a 2006 World Championship semifinal, as well as the minor detail of today's winner advancing to Saturday's gold-medal game.

"Is that all?" U.S. guard Sue Bird said jokingly.

With no Russian heritage, Hammon became a naturalized citizen on the basis of her contractual ties to the club team CSKA Moscow. This happened after it became obvious she wouldn't be considered for the 29-player pool used to select the U.S. team.

The U.S. soundly defeated Russia in an Aug. 4 Olympic tuneup in Haining, so Hammon claims she's past the oddity of playing against her home country. And Team USA is far more concerned with payback from its stunning 2006 loss.

Bird said she still can hear the packed gym in Brazil, which included Australian players, cheering against a Leslie-less U.S. team. This racket contrasted sharply with the pin-drop quiet postgame locker room that Bird also can recall.

"A lot of silence," she said. "When you lose big games like that, you're angry at yourself because when you wear the U.S. jersey, a lot is expected. You're supposed to win gold medals. To miss out on even an opportunity to do that was very disappointing.

"It's what fuels us. I know not all of this team was there. But everybody else watched it on TV. We've already watched film on that game. And I think we're a much better team now."

Aiming for its fourth straight Olympic gold medal, the U.S. has steamrollered through this tournament, winning its first six games by an average margin of 43.2 points. No opponent has come within 36 points as the Americans have run their Olympic win streak to 31 games.

"You can see that people are all about winning. It's never been about the stat sheet or who's got what," Leslie said. "And I told them in our very first meeting that after winning three gold medals, I can't remember who led what in any [statistics].

"But you don't forget the losses."

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