Storm Stars Set to Square Off in Semis

Kevin Pelton, | August 8, 2012

It's the showdown we all anticipated - a round earlier than expected. On Thursday in London, the USA and Australia will play for a spot in the Olympic gold-medal game (9 a.m., NBC Sports Network), pitting Storm stars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson against each other.

USA-Australia matchups in the Olympics are nothing new. The two countries have met each of the last three Olympics - all three times in the final, with the U.S. claiming gold and the Opals taking silver. The prospect of a fourth consecutive final disappeared when Australia finished second behind France in Group B, putting the Opals on the same side of the bracket as the USA and ensuring they would meet on the semifinals, if at all. So only one of the two teams, who have dominated international basketball for the last decade, will play for gold on Saturday in what should be a hard-fought game.

Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson square off in international play.
Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images

Bird and Jackson have played against each other multiple times representing their countries.

"Obviously, the last couple of Olympics, more than a couple, we've faced Australia in the finals, and people expect that," said Bird. "But I can just say for us, historically in my experience, the semifinals game has been the most difficult. It's the game where if you lose you get nothing in terms of the gold medal. So, it's the game that is probably the hardest to play in the tournament for whatever reason."

The closest of the Australia-USA tilts the last three Olympics came in 2004, when the U.S. pulled away late to win by a 74-63 final. In 2008, with Opals stars Jackson and Penny Taylor both battling ankle injuries, the USA dominated the final, winning 92-65. The most recent meeting between the teams in major international competition came during the 2010 FIBA World Championship, when the USA won 83-75 in group play. Australia was upset in the quarterfinals, so the teams never met with a medal at stake.

Both teams have a very different look from 2008. While the USA remains strong as ever, having extended its Olympic winning streak to 39 games and two decades by starting 6-0, the Opals have been more inconsistent. Playing without Taylor, absent due to a torn ACL, Australia has had to grind out wins en route to the semifinals. China led at halftime of Tuesday's quarterfinal and the game was close into the fourth quarter before the Opals opened up a lead.

Australia does have a new weapon in 6-8 center Liz Cambage, who is averaging 14.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in the Olympics to go along with Jackson's 14.7 points and 5.8 rebounds. The USA's best matchup for Cambage is 6-6 Sylvia Fowles, who has played limited minutes since returning from a sore left foot that caused her to sit out three games. The rest of the U.S. roster gives up at least four inches to the powerful Cambage.

A deep frontcourt that also includes former Storm players Suzy Batkovic (10.8 points, 6.5 rebounds) and Abby Bishop has helped Aussie Head Coach Carrie Graf rest Jackson more than usual in Olympic competition. Jackson has averaged 24.5 minutes per game in London and may be able to ramp that up if she can avoid foul trouble.

"I'm glad we don't have to guard each other. It could be a little awkward since we are such good friends."
- Bird

For Bird and Jackson, playing against each other is nothing new.

"I'm glad we don't have to guard each other," said Bird. "It could be a little awkward since we are such good friends."

Come next week, Bird and Jackson will be reunited as Storm teammates. For now, however, they both have their eyes on the same prize - a spot in Saturday's final game and a chance to play for gold.

"Obviously America is going to be a huge task for us but we can't get outfocused," said Jackson. "We're going to go out there and play tough and do everything we can to beat them but you know, they're a hard team to beat."

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