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Insider Preview - Australia vs. U.S.

HEAD-TO-HEAD
7-0 RECORD 7-0
W-7 STREAK W-7
85.4 PF 85.7
59.9 PA 63.3
43.0 RPG 42.3
United States (7-0) vs. Australia (7-0)
Saturday, August 28, 6:45 a.m.
Olympic Indoor Hall
TV: USA Network

How long have people in both the U.S. and Australia been anticipating this matchup for the gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics? Any answer less than four years is probably appropriate. These same two teams met for gold in Sydney, and, despite the backing of a passionate home crowd, Australia still wasn't ready to seriously contend with the U.S. Two years later, the result was similar when the teams squared off in the semifinals of the World Basketball Championships and the U.S. women emerged victorious. This is the largest international competition since then, so perhaps two years is an appropriate answer. Certainly, this matchup has been anticipated in Seattle since Sue Bird and Coach Anne Donovan were both named to the USA Basketball Senior Women's National Team this past winter, setting up the possibility of a gold-medal game that would guarantee the Storm (as well as the Phoenix Mercury) both gold and silver, with MVP Lauren Jackson Australia's team leader. Since the start of training camp, Bird and Jackson have been asked probably a thousand times what it will be like to play against each other (and, in Jackson's case, her mentor Donovan). (WNBA.com providing one good example today.) For their part, the U.S. women, notably outspoken center Lisa Leslie - whose personal rivalry with Jackson, catalyzed by an incident in 2000 when Jackson pulled out Leslie's hair extension, is the game within this game and a battle of the acknowledged top two female basketball players in the world - have maintained they don't care who they play. Led by Jackson, the Australians have insisted they're looking for nothing less than a gold medal won against the two-time defending Olympic champion Americans.


The Storm's fans have long anticipated a U.S.-Australia battle for gold.
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
That talk seemed a bit far-fetched as the Olympics opened; Australia would first have to get through a difficult Group A including the other two legitimate contenders for gold, Russia and Brazil. Australia ended up breezing through its pool, beating both Russia and Brazil by at least 18 points, while the U.S. did the same in its weaker pool. Both teams crushed their opponents in the quarterfinals, then were challenged in the semis. But while Australia eventually pulled away for a 13-point win over Brazil, the U.S. needed a late 6-0 run to hold off Russia and keep its Olympics undefeated streak alive. Friday's results pushed Australia ahead of the U.S. in scoring offense at 85.7 points per game, and the U.S. is a mere 3.4 points ahead in scoring defense. While it's difficult to read too much into preliminary-round final scores, which often reflect how badly a team wants to beat its opponent more than anything else, based on its superior level of competition, Australia has arguably played just as well as the U.S. in the Olympics. That's been subjectively evident as well, with the U.S. regularly struggling in the first half before picking up its energy level.

To beat the U.S. women, it is critical that Australia play them even in the frontcourt and force them to win from the perimeter. Russia used its size and skill up front to largely do this Friday, and the results spoke for themselves. The Americans have not shot well or consistently from outside, and Australia will likely try to focus on the trio of Leslie, Tina Thompson and reserve Yolanda Griffith, who have combined for 38.9 points and 20.1 rebounds per game. On the U.S. side, the gameplan is easy to say and difficult to do: contain Jackson. Every team plays Australia with that gameplan, and no one has succeeded yet, as Jackson leads all Olympic scorers with 24.6 points per game and is shooting 58.3% from the field. It was a terrific sign for Australia that three other players stepped up to score in double-figures against Brazil when Jackson was relatively quiet in the first half (of course, she still finished with a mere 26 points and 13 rebounds).

G U A R D S
Ideal for their talent-laden rosters, both teams start traditional point guards who look to set up teammates before looking for their own shots. In her third Olympics, the USA's Dawn Staley has taken this approach to its extreme, averaging just 2.7 points per game. But she's taken outstanding care of the basketball, posting a 4.4 assist-turnover ratio. Look for Australia to make her shoot more than she has been comfortable with. Australia's Kristi Harrower, who has five years of WNBA experience and is in her second Olympics, has been more aggressive on offense lately, scoring 12 points against Brazil. She's averaging 7.6 for the Games with good shooting percentages.
Sheryl Swoopes hit the USA's two biggest baskets of this Olympics against Russia, consecutive midrange jumpers after the Russians had pulled within two points of the U.S. late in the fourth quarter. Swoopes hadn't hit a field goal all day to that point, but her timing was impeccable. Another two-time gold medalist, Swoopes hasn't been scoring as much (9.7 ppg) but has been the USA's top three-point threat (44.0%). Australian captain Trish Fallon is another two-time Olympian and also came up big Friday, scoring 14 points against Brazil. Fallon has been the Opals' third-leading scorer during the Olympics at 10.4 points per game.
F O R W A R D S
The youngest player in the U.S. starting lineup, Tamika Catchings has betrayed no signs of nerves. Catchings has been a force on defense, averaging three steals per game. The versatile forward is also third on the U.S. team in rebounding (5.4 rpg), though she has been inconsistent on offense. WNBA All-Star Penny Taylor, another first-time Olympian, is Australia's second-leading scorer and had a 26-point effort against Russia. That was critical because Russia was Jackson's worst performance of the Games (15 points, 5-for-17 shooting). Taylor is one of the WNBA's most underrated offensive players because of her high efficiency and versatility; she can shoot from the outside or get to the lane. That ability has been on display during the Olympics; Taylor has attempted a team-high 21 free throws and is 9-for-19 from downtown while shooting better than 50% from the field overall.
What more can be said about Jackson? As good as she was in leading Australia to silver in 2000 at the tender age of 19, Jackson has been phenomenally better this go-round. She has scored 20 points in all but one of Australia's games despite regularly facing double-teams and heavy defensive pressure, and has managed to keep her teammates involved as well. It's clear from Jackson's passion that no one wants to win a gold medal more than she does, and she likely regards this game as her opportunity to prove to the world that Australia can play with the U.S. And, team-oriented as Jackson may be, there is probably a part of her that would love nothing more than to outplay Leslie in the gold-medal game en route to victory. She'll likely need that kind of game for Australia to win. The bad news is that few WNBA players play Jackson tougher than Thompson, despite Jackson scoring 26 points against Houston in one of the Storm's last games before the break. Thompson responded with 22 days later in Houston, hitting four three-pointers, and her long-range shooting makes her particularly dangerous in the international game.
C E N T E R
While Jackson will surely get her chances, the real matchup with Leslie for Australia is first-time Olympian and 2003 Storm draft pick Suzy Batkovic. Batkovic has been phenomenal on the glass for the Opals, pulling down 14.4 rebounds per 40 minutes, but she hasn't been able to stay on the court because of foul trouble, averaging 18.4 minutes per game. It is critical that Batkovic avoid foul trouble in this game; besides her and Jackson, Australia lacks size inside, and foul trouble for Jackson would be even worse for the Aussies. It would also help if Batkovic is hitting from outside; she's 4-for-10 on three-pointers so far in the Olympics. As for Leslie, dominant as she is in the WNBA, she turns it up a notch in international competition. She is shooting nearly 60% from the field, well above her WNBA performance, and averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds per game in just 21.8 minutes of action, ridiculous per-minute performance. The downside for Leslie has been turnovers; while they have been characterized as a U.S. weakness, it's really just Leslie who has struggled with turnovers, averaging 4.4 per game, more than a quarter of the USA's total.
B E N C H
U.S. Coach Van Chancellor tightened his rotation to just eight players against Russia, and expect more of the same in the gold-medal game. There's still plenty of quality off the U.S. bench, led by Griffith (left), who has allowed Chancellor to rest Leslie without any drop-off in performance and has picked up multiple double-doubles in relief. Guard Shannon Johnson had 21 points in the quarterfinals against Greece, but has otherwise struggled with her shot, shooting 38.8%. Wing Diana Taurasi is the youngest U.S. regular and has also struggled from the perimeter at times, but had consecutive big games earlier this week. Relative to the USA's imposing depth - WNBA MVP candidate Swin Cash and Sue Bird, arguably the league's top point guard, are not part of the rotation - Australia's bench is weak. Forward Belinda Snell has seen the most action, subbing for Batkovic when she's in foul trouble. Snell has boarded well (4.6 rpg) but is shooting a dismal 28%. Guard Alicia Poto, a controversial pick over the Storm's Tully Bevilaqua as a backup point guard, has held her own during the Olympics, canning a cool 50% from three-point range. Former Storm guard Sandy Brondello (right), in her fourth Olympics, brings the most international experience of anyone on either side but has seen only limited playing time at age 36 (and a belated happy birthday to Brondello, who turned 36 on Aug. 20). Forward Rachel Sporn and guard Allison Tranquilli have also seen regular action for the Opals.

TEAM LEADERS

LESLIE

JACKSON
Leslie
16.0
PPG Jackson
24.6
Leslie
8.0
RPG Jackson
9.4
Staley
3.1
APG Harrower
3.0
Catchings
3.0
SPG Taylor
1.6
Leslie
1.7
BPG Jackson
1.7
Swoopes
23.6
MPG Jackson
28.6
USELESS STAT OF THE DAY
U.S. assistant Anne Donovan is 1-2 all-time coaching against Jackson, all three games played while she coached the Charlotte Sting.

LAST TIME
The two teams last met in major international competition in the semifinals of the 2002 World Basketball Championships in Nanjing, China. Behind 24 points and 13 rebounds from Leslie, the U.S. women pulled out a 71-56 victory. The game was tied after one quarter and Australia led midway through period number two, but the U.S. went on a 16-0 run to take a commanding lead it would not relinquish. Johnson added 16 points for the U.S., while Jackson was limited by foul trouble and finished with nine points and eight rebounds.

INJURIES
U.S. - Guard Katie Smith (torn cartilage, right knee) is out.

Australia - None.