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Stewart scored a team-high 23 points as the USA defeated Australia 79-55 in the Olympic quarterfinals.
Breanna Stewart made sure that what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas.
A few weeks after the U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team (4-0) fell to Australia (1-3) in an exhibition game in Las Vegas, Stewart put up her best Olympic scoring performance to date with 23 points as the USA stormed past Australia 79-55 in Wednesday’s Olympic quarterfinal game at Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.
Thanks in part to a 17-0 first-quarter run, the top-ranked Americans won their 53rd consecutive Olympic game and move on to face Serbia (3-1) in the semifinals on Friday (1:40 p.m. JST/12:30 a.m. EDT), which will air live on NBC.
“I think our players had a look in their eyes that they didn’t want to go home,” USA coach Dawn Staley said. “They want to compete for a gold medal. This was a do-or-die situation, and it was great to see them just play with that energy and effort on both sides of the basketball.”
Brittney Griner scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the USA, while A’ja Wilson had 10 points and four rebounds. Chelsea Gray chipped in seven points and eight assists. Leilani Mitchell, who plays for the Washington Mystics, paced Australia with 14 points and six assists.
While the previous meeting only was an exhibition game, the U.S. certainly appeared motivated to avenge the 70-67 loss to the Aussies on July 16 in Las Vegas. The Americans blew a 13-point halftime lead in that game.
“We didn’t talk much about it,” said USA center Sylvia Fowles, who had four points and seven rebounds. “We watched film yesterday before practice and pretty much that was the last of it. We try not to harp on it, what happened in Vegas, but I think everybody got the memo and we knew exactly what happened.”
After Australia took a 6-4 lead, the USA held the Opals scoreless for more than six minutes and forced 10 turnovers in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Stewart scored 10 of the Americans’ first 14 points and chipped in a couple blocked shots while also drawing two offensive fouls. Stewart had a 3-pointer and a three-point play in the opening surge that resulted in a 26-12 lead after the opening 10 minutes.
“It’s crunch time,” said Stewart, who went 8-for-10 shooting. “It’s win or go home, and I think we’ve struggled a little bit with how we started in pool play games, and I wanted to make sure I came out aggressive on both ends of the court.”
Stewart added another 10 points in the second quarter as the Americans countered a 7-0 Australia run that made it 28-19 by closing the half on a 20-8 spurt. The USA led 48-27 at the break.
With the blowout, Staley was able to keep her starters on the bench in the fourth quarter. For Stewart, her 23 minutes against Australia was a far cry from the 35.3 minutes she averaged during pool play — seven more minutes than any teammate.
“I’m trying to get a gold medal, so I’ll do whatever,” Stewart said.
Now the U.S. faces Serbia, a team with little Olympic history, for the right to play for the gold medal. The USA crushed Serbia 110-84 in pool play at the 2016 Rio Games, when Serbia was making its Olympic debut. In Tokyo, the Serbs finished second in Group A, then eliminated previously undefeated China (3-1) 77-70 in the quarterfinals.
“They are a team that’s been together for a long time, so they are fluid with what they do offensively,” Staley said. “We saw them play a little bit more zone (against China) than they had in the past, so we’ve got to be prepared for that.”
USA veteran point guard Sue Bird, who along with Diana Taurasi is trying to make Olympic history — in men’s and women’s basketball — by winning a fifth gold medal, said the Americans are “trending in the right direction.” One reason for the perceived struggles is the new format for the Tokyo Olympics. While still having 12 teams, teams are broken up into three pools instead of two, which means only three pool-play games instead of the previous five.
“I’m pretty sure (this Olympics) will be the hardest, just given (there’s) not a lot of pool-play games,” Bird said. “Right away within a couple days you are already in the knockout rounds.”
That could benefit some of the opposing teams, Bird said, since they train regularly, whereas the U.S. only comes together for major tournaments and training camps.
“We used to use pool play as our training because we don’t really have practice time,” Bird said. “So, from one game to the next, we were just hoping to get better.”