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No jitters here

U.S. women's hoops begins gold-medal quest in dominating fashion

Posted: Saturday August 14, 2004 9:41PM; Updated: Saturday August 14, 2004 9:41PM
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  Swin Cash
Swin Cash's Olympic debut was a successful one as she led Team USA with 19 points in an easy win over New Zealand.
AP

Van Chancellor probably knew he should count his blessings. After all, not every U.S. Olympic basketball coach had a team that was anchored by veteran Olympians, balanced in skills, easy to coach and made up of the best players in the country, who couldn't imagine being anywhere else.

Yet Chancellor spoke of a modest wish list before the U.S. women's basketball team began Olympic competition on Saturday against New Zealand. It contained five items: 1) He wished his team was bigger. 2) He wished he had more than 10 days to prepare. 3) He wished -- and what pro coach wouldn't? -- that FIBA granted six fouls instead of five. 4) He wished his star veteran shooter, Katie Smith, was healthy instead of sitting on the bench nursing an injured right knee. 5) He wished his young-pup rookie, Diana Taurasi, would not be so deferential to her elders and shoot the ball a little more.

He can't do much about the first three items, time will grant him the fourth and, as for No. 5, he can already cross that one off his list.

In an unsurprising 99-47 blowout of the Tall Ferns at a converted hangar at the old Athens airport (which felt like Sacramento's Arco Arena, thanks to NBA Entertainment-inspired trampoline shows and t-shirt launches), Taurasi and fellow rookie scrubs Sue Bird, Shannon Johnson and Swin Cash, as well as 2000 Olympian Yolanda Griffith, showed no opening day jitters as they upstaged the USA's starting lineup.

After Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes, Tamika Catchings and Tina Thompson established a thin 9-8 lead half way through the first quarter, the bench blew the game open, outscoring the Kiwis 20-4 to end the quarter and establish a relentless tone that lasted throughout the game. Taurasi's 12 points (she also had a team-high nine rebounds) included three of the team's five threes.

"We do have great depth, and great depth is good," says Chancellor.

But depth is only one reason Chancellor's team is the USA's best hope for a basketball gold. Fierce defense? Near the end of the second half, New Zealand's Julie Ofsoski had a shot gang-blocked by three Yanks, an arguably overenthusiastic play that was greeted by boos from the sparse crowd. Rebounding? USA had a 58-28 margin. Transition scoring? The U.S. had 24 points from turnovers, compared to New Zealand's two. The U.S. was also superb in team passing, a bit of a surprise for a team that had been together for little more than a week.

"If we're not sharing the ball and moving it around, we're going to have a problem out there," says Leslie, the starting center. "If we're not playing defense and rotating, then we're going to have a problem. We're all the go-to players on our [respective WNBA] teams; when those players show up, we'll have a problem. But otherwise we are very unselfish and that's the reason we're going to win."

Staley, the starting point guard, the Olympic flag-bearer and, like Leslie and Swoopes the veteran of two Olympic gold-medals runs, has called this the best women's team ever assembled. But she has been around long enough to sound a note of caution. Yes, the youthful second-string was impressive against an overmatched New Zealand team.

"They can play in that type of game, "says Staley. "Come Monday, the competition is going to be different. It's going to take a little experience, and a little Olympic savvy to win. We shouldn't have had 27 turnovers against New Zealand. You give Australia 27 extra possessions, it's a different outcome."

Team USA got a relatively easy draw; their biggest worries, Australia, Russia and Brazil, are beating each other up in the other bracket. The toughest preliminary-round test it will face will come on Monday against the Czech Republic, a young and talented team that came in second in the 2003 FIBA Europe Olympic Qualifying Tournament and should contend for a medal.

If the demolition of the Tall Ferns is any indication, Chancellor won't have to worry about this team underestimating the competition. On their third Olympic tour or fresh out of college, his players aren't taking anything for granted.

"Up 50 or up 10 or two, we play the same way," says Taurasi, who led Connecticut to three straight NCAA titles before the Phoenix Mercury picked her No. 1 in the 2004 WNBA draft. "The minute you change the way you play, the minute you get worse as a player. You don't get too many games in the Olympics. You have to take advantage of all of them."

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