U.S. Women Dominate Croatia

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Sue Bird was happy to be playing basketball again.

Bird left the U.S. women's Olympic team last Sunday after learning that her stepfather, Dennis, had died of a heart attack. After spending last week with her family she joined the team in Turkey on Saturday.

"It's been emotional. Obviously he wasn't my father, but has been in my life for 16 years. He meant so much to my mom," said Bird, fighting through tears. "These things are tough. It's good to be back, everyone's been so great. In a way even though I'm not with my biological family, this is an extension. They make me laugh and I don't have to think about anything else so it's really nice."

Bird, who missed exhibition games against Brazil and Britain, said there was never any doubt that she would play in the Olympics.

"If I had a penny for every time somebody at the wake or funeral said to me, 'Dennis wants you to go win a gold medal,' " she said. "I know I was where I was supposed to be the last week and I feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be now."

Bird fondly remembered the man who had been a huge part of her basketball career from her high school days at Christ the King in New York to her college years at Connecticut.

"He was always around. He was the kind of guy who was very infectious and always in a good mood," she said. "He literally never was in a bad mood. Always wanting to be friends with everyone, supporting everyone. Forget (just) me; he thought these guys (teammates) were his daughters as well. That's the way he treated everyone. He was great for my mom. They were very good for each other, good companions. She's going to miss him a lot, and we all are."

Bird arrived in Turkey at 6 a.m. and didn't look the least bit jet-lagged. She played 19 minutes, scoring eight points and dishing out five assists in the Americans' 109-55 rout of Croatia.

"I didn't know what to expect," U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said. "That's why I didn't start her, wanted her to get into the game at her own pace. Sue's not ever not ready to play. So I'm not surprised where she came out and played well, hit some shots."

Bird entered four minutes into the game and her first play was a nifty no-look pass to Tamika Catchings, though she didn't convert the shot. Bird then hit a three-pointer a few minutes later as the U.S. went on a 24-3 run to take a 38-13 lead at the end of the first quarter.

With the two-time Olympian back, the U.S. offense was clicking.

"Sue's one of those exceptionally efficient players," Auriemma said. "She doesn't waste a lot of motions, no wasted dribbles, no unnecessary passes, nothing that doesn't lead to something. I'm not surprised that when she's in the game things happen rather crisply. We're only going to get better this being her first time back."

The Americans overwhelmed Croatia, building a 62-23 advantage after the first half, when they shot 57 percent from the field. All 12 U.S. players had scored by the break. Sylvia Fowles scored 15 points and Candace Parker added 14.

The U.S. extended its lead to 57 in the second half and crossed the 100-point plateau midway through the fourth quarter on Seimone Augustus' jumper from the wing. The Americans finished the game with 52-percent shooting from the field.

The Americans and Croatians will play each other in their Olympic opener July 28.

"It's a little odd for us and for them since we're playing them a week from today," Auriemma said. "We wanted to make sure that we found out a little bit about them."

Before that game, the U.S. will play Turkey on Sunday in its final exhibition game. The Americans then will train for two more days in Istanbul before heading to London.

Playing in Turkey served as a bit of a homecoming for six of the U.S. players, who compete in the country during the winter. Augustus, Tina Charles, Fowles and Catchings have played for Galatasaray, and Angel McCoughtry suited up for rival Fenerbahce. Diana Taurasi has played for both teams.

Ana Lelas scored 14 points and Sandra Mandir added 13 to lead Croatia, which qualified for the Olympics by winning its quarterfinal game at the final Olympic qualifying tournament. The four quarterfinal winners at that tournament automatically qualified for London.

Canada earned the final bid by winning the consolation bracket

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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