Similar Road to Redemption for USA Women
By Adam Hirshfield,

Seimone Augustus, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Diana Taurasi are among the U.S. Olympians looking to avenge the 2006 World Championship loss.
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Their winning streak stood at 26 games dating back a total of 12 years. They had won 50 straight decisions overall in Olympic and World Championship competition.

But the USA women's team was upset by Russia 75-68 in the semifinals of the Worlds two years ago in Brazil. And though Anne Donovan's squad rebounded to win bronze, the loss stung for every member of the delegation.

"When you wear the USA jersey, a lot is expected," said U.S. point guard Sue Bird. "You're supposed to win gold medals, so to miss out on an opportunity to do that was just very, very disappointing."

"It was protocol to go up there and get it," said Tina Thompson, the Americans' leading scorer in Brazil, of the bronze medal she and her teammates won a day later, "but I didn't want it. I honestly have no idea where that medal is. I respect what it stands for, but I only like gold medals.

"We honestly don't ever expect to lose," Thompson continued. "When we do, it sucks really bad. I don't know any other way to describe it. It leaves a really, really bad taste in our mouths and feeling in our stomachs."

"And whether or not we were on that World Championship roster, we've all experienced something close to that over the past four years. We've all lost more games as a group than we had in a long time."

Following the disappointing result in the Worlds, the USA also dropped games in the FIBA World League Tournament and the Good Luck Beijing tourney in April.

"I think that the rest of the world gained a lot of confidence when they saw that we could lose," said Candace Parker, a member of the 2006 World Championship squad. "'Wow, the United States lost.' Now they think they have a way in."

And that perception of the Americans falling from grace on the international basketball stage is something the 2008 Olympic squad wanted to quash in Beijing. Quickly.

With five straight opening round wins in Beijing by an average of 43 points per game, and Tuesday's 104-60 thrashing of South Korea, it's fair to say the U.S. women have been up to the task so far. But they're far from satisfied.

"Our goal here is to win a gold medal," said Thompson. "That's the only reason why we're here. We want to end up … repeating for that gold medal at the end of this tournament."

And to get there, several members of the U.S. team are willing to admit that revenge and redemption may be part of the mindset.

"We lost to Russia. That's pretty much been the (motivation) all along," said Bird. "I definitely remember what it felt like.

"It's tough for us to even have that one blemish on our record," concurred Lisa Leslie, a three-time Olympic gold medalist (1996, 2000, 2004), one of the current USA players not on the World Championship roster.

"But it's actually good for us in a way because we'll continue to use it as motivation. Maybe we're more hungry because of it. The last time we were out on the floor competing in a big game, we lost. And now that we're back competing on a big stage, that last loss is in the back of our minds."

"It's what fuels us," Bird went on to say. "Sometimes losses turn out to be the biggest win in a lot of ways because you learn more from them and they can really motivate you."

The return to the fray of U.S. legend Lisa Leslie could pay dividends against Russia and Australia in the medal round.
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"That was a nice piece of humble pie," said Diana Taurasi, the Americans' leading scorer in the loss to Russia. "I always say that that was the best thing that could happen to us. We'd been riding a high for so long... It shows you that any given night if you don't bring your 'A' game, the world is good enough to beat you.

"That's the one thing that's in the back of our minds: we're not the World Champions. We have to go get it."

Some suggest that the rash of losses suffered by the U.S. women -- and men, for that matter -- is simply a result of the improvement of other countries around the world and the continued growth and spread of the sport.

And Coach Donovan -- a U.S. Olympian herself in 1980, 1984 and 1988 -- agreed that Australia and Russia have narrowed the gap considerably in recent years.

"There is no doubt," Donovan told me before traveling to China. "If you look back at the history, we've won the gold medal in the past three Olympics, but the competition has gotten much closer. You go back to every Olympics, and the games have gotten closer and closer in the medal round. And it's always Russia, Australia, USA. … We know that they are right there breathing down our neck."

"We've beaten Brazil, we've beaten Australia, we've beaten China before," Leslie reminded me, "but the competition out there is getting better. We can't take any game or any opponent for granted."

The U.S. certainly won't take Thursday's semifinal against Becky Hammon and Russia lightly, hinting that there may even be an extra bit of motivation.

"We're going to come ready to play no matter who it is," said USA veteran Katie Smith on Tuesday, "but especially (because) it's Russia. There's no extra incentive needed except for the history we have. I'm excited about putting ourselves in a place to get what we want... which is a gold medal."

"There's no denying that we lost at the World Championships," Parker said with a hint of obviousness. "Of course we weren't at full strength, but we lost nonetheless. And we're gonna have to come out and play hard. Even though the rest of the world is getting better, we still feel like we're the best in the world."

It's difficult to argue with that sentiment so far in Beijing, but there are still games to be played. And while the U.S. men have been nicknamed "the Redeem Team," all indications are that there is a similar kind of pressure on the U.S. women.

"Oh yeah, it's pressure packed," said USA assistant coach Dawn Staley, another three-time Olympic gold medalist (1996, 2000, 2004). "(We) went down to Brazil and we brought back a bronze medal. That is unacceptable to all of us."

But Staley knows there's reason for optimism.

"Most women's USA Basketball teams rise to the occasion. We've pretty much taken care of business. And when it's all said and done, we'll be able to strap it up and bring home some gold medals."