U.S. Women Win Ugly to Advance to Gold Medal Game vs. Australia

Smith and the U.S. gave Hammon no room to operate on Thursday.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
BEIJING, August 21, 2008 -- The U.S. Senior Women's National Team is one win away from Olympic gold medal after surviving their toughest test yet, an ugly 67-52 win over Russia in the semifinals at the Wukesong Culture and Sports Center on Thursday.

Facing their most talented and most physical opponent so far in Beijing, the U.S. was sloppy and out of sync offensively in the first half. They turned the ball over 10 times in the first period, which is more than they had turned it over in any half leading into the semis.

At one point in the first, they turned it over five straight times, and they scored just six points in the first seven minutes of the game. Behind six points and an assist from Maria Stepanova, Russia led 10-5 midway through the period.

"We just couldnít quite get the rhythm on offense," Katie Smith said after the game. "I think we were pressing a little bit."

There was still plenty of game left to play, but this was not the same U.S. Team that had cruised through their first six games in Beijing.

Their 13 points in the first period was their lowest scoring quarter in the tournament so far. And though they cut down on their turnovers, the U.S. continued to struggle offensively through most of the second quarter, missing 13 of their first 16 shots of the period. With three minutes to go in the half, Russia had their biggest lead, 28-21.

It was 30-23 when Diana Taurasi hit a pair of threes to fuel a 10-0 U.S. run to take a three-point lead. After a Cappie Pondexter turnover turned into an Irina Osipova layup, the U.S. led by one at the half.

Momentum was fleeting though, and the third quarter began with four empty U.S. possessions and a 6-0 Russia run. For the first time in Beijing, the U.S. was behind in the second half, and memories of their 2006 loss to Russia in the World Championships semifinals ran through the minds of some of those in the arena.

But this game was different. And those memories were quickly erased, as the U.S. got five straight buckets and six straight stops to go on a 12-0 run and take their biggest lead of the game, 45-38. It was a lead they would never relinquish.

Russia scored just eight points in the third quarter on 4-of-13 shooting. And even though the U.S. scored only 15 points themselves, their second lowest scoring quarter of the tournament, they were up eight going into the fourth.

Two quick buckets from Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus to start the fourth put the U.S. up double-digits for good. Their defensive dominance continued, allowing Russia to shoot just 4-for-15 in the fourth. Overall, in the second half, Russia shot 8-for-28 from the field, including 0-for-9 from beyond the arc.

Of course, the U.S. didn't shoot much better, 33 percent for the game, but they made up for it with their defense. That was the difference between this game and the one in 2006.

"Two years ago when Russia beat us," U.S. Coach Anne Donovan said, "we just werenít a defensive team at all. So, we knew coming into these Olympic Games, if we faced a game where we didnít score the ball well, which we obviously didnít, we would have to rely on our defense to win the game and it came to that tonight."

Though Stepanova gave them issues with her size and mid-range jumper, the U.S. shut down Becky Hammon from the get-go. Hammon had led Russia with 13.2 points per contest through their first six games, but she couldn't penetrate or get any open looks against the U.S. And sometimes, she just couldn't get the ball at all.

"Our job was to keep the ball out of Beckyís hands as much as possible," Donovan said. "We knew that when she gets on a roll, the team gets on a roll. We tried very hard to get the ball out of her hands and not give her opportunities to score."

Mission accomplished. Hammon scored just three points on 1-of-6 shooting on Thursday.

In addition to playing stifling defense, the other way to make up for poor shooting is to rebound. And on Thursday, the U.S. dominated the glass, grabbing 21 offensive boards, with 14 of the 21 coming from the second-unit frontline of Fowles, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker. Overall, the U.S. outrebounded Russia 52-33.

Of course, someone needed to score some points, and Taurasi stepped up in that department. She led all scorers with 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.

"Diana is a big time, money player," Donovan said.

"When we're not playing so well offensively," Kara Lawson added, "sometimes the best offense is to just give the ball to [Diana] and let her operate."

Next up is Australia, who handily beat China, 90-56, in the second semifinal Thursday night. It's a matchup of the defending Olympic champs, the Americans, and the defending World Champs, the Aussies. It's also a rematch of a tight battle that took place 16 days ago in Haining, when the U.S. beat Australia 71-67 at the Diamond Ball Tournament.

Australia could have Penny Taylor, who sprained her ankle in Tuesday's quarterfinal and missed the semis, back for the gold medal game. More important, they'll definitely have Lauren Jackson, who will undergo ankle surgery after the Olympics but recorded a double-double in Thursday's win.

The U.S. Women have won three straight Olympic gold medals and five overall. They're currently riding a 32-game win streak in Olympic competition.

But getting the next one won't be easy. Just like this one wasn't.

John Schuhmann will be covering USA Basketball throughout the Beijing Olympics. Send him a question or comment.