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Posted: Saturday August 23, 2008 6:55PM; Updated: Sunday August 24, 2008 2:16AM
Kelli Anderson Kelli Anderson >
INSIDE OLYMPIC BASKETBALL

With golden moment, U.S. shows it's one of the best teams ever

Story Highlights
  • This group committed to team defense, and the concept of team
  • Kara Lawson proved she deserved a spot on the Olympic team
  • Lisa Leslie capped a dominant Olympic career in perfect style
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Lisa Leslie (right) won her fourth gold medal Saturday in Beijing.
Lisa Leslie (right) won her fourth gold medal Saturday in Beijing.
Bob Rosato/SI

The U.S. women's basketball team that trounced Australia 92-65 for its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal Saturday night is, arguably, the best team, top to bottom, that the U.S. women have ever fielded in an Olympic Games. It's not just the roster packed of superstar talent; the U.S. has always had that. It's the way this group committed to team defense, the way it committed to the team.

"We've always been 12-deep, but this group is the most unselfish group I've ever been around," says coach Anne Donovan. "Nobody cared about who started, nobody cared about the stat sheet. I don't know that I've ever seen that from 12 players before."

Two-time Olympian Sue Bird added that this was one of the most fun teams she had ever been on. "This team is crazy, in the best possible way," Bird said on Saturday, adding that she was eager to get through doping control and get on to the important business of celebrating. "It's going to be the most amazing party ever. We complement each other very well on the court, but you should see us on the bus. It's way better."

So on Saturday night Team USA earned the gold medal, the coach's award and a party-animal citation. Here are a few other superlatives from the women's medal rounds:

Best Call By Anne Donovan

Naming Kara Lawson to the team. A lot of eyebrows shot up when Lawson, who averages 11 points a game as a combo guard for the Sacramento Monarchs, was one of the last three players selected to the team over more high-profile guards like the Sun's Lindsey Whalen. But Lawson proved her worth every night of the tournament, radiating energy and enthusiasm on the bench and contributing seven points and three assists a game on the court. In the gold-medal game, she led all U.S. scorers with 15 points, and added three rebounds, two assists and a steal. Donovan says she never had a doubt Lawson belonged on the team. "There was a lot of controversy over that selection," said Donovan after the gold-medal game. "But she showed throughout the tournament why she deserved it. Especially tonight."

MVP: The U.S. Bench

With all due respect to the American's formidable starting five of Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson, Diana Taurasi, Katie Smith and Bird, the USA's bench was the hero of this tournament. When Taurasi, Smith and, eventually, Lisa Leslie, got into foul trouble, the U.S. didn't miss a beat. "I don't know many teams could have their starting two and three guards in foul trouble and still go up 20," says Bird. At one point, "scrubs" Lawson, Sylvia Fowles, Candace Parker, Seimone Augustus, Tamika Catchings and Cappie Pondexter strung together 28 straight points. Along with Delisha Milton-Jones, they outscored the starters 59-33 for the game.

Most Valuable Rookie

Sylvia Fowles, 6'5" center. Leslie, who has manned the center for the U.S. for 16 years, can retire from international play confident she has passed the torch to some very capable hands. Fowles, who went to four Final Fours with LSU and never made it to an NCAA final, made the most of her first Olympic experience, leading the team in scoring (13.4 ppg) and rebounding (8.4) on the way to the gold medal. "I don't think we knew Sylva was going to be this good this quickly," says assistant coach Gail Goestenkors. "Because she's a rookie in this experience. You never know how first timers are going to respond."

Ironwoman Award

In anticipation of winning her fourth consecutive gold medal, Lisa Leslie traveled to China with her three golds from Atlanta, Sydney and Athens -- packed in a Chinese silk bag and somehow hustled through security -- and wore them to the medal ceremony. Not that she needed all that hardware to remind her teammates of the legacy she's leaving. "She is a major reason why basketball in U.S. is what it is today," said Bird. Then, pondering the time it took to gather four medals, she added, "That's 16 years, that's incredible to stay at that level and be the pillar of the team and to have four golds. I'm not sure anyone will beat that."

Biggest International Revelation

Chen Nan, China. We know the 6-6, 189-pound center from Qingdao Shandong has triathlon training in her background; might there be some dance as well? Her prolific scoring and nimble moves around the basket was "a big surprise" says Anne Donovan. China's top rebounder, with 8.1 boards per game, Chen doubled her tournament points per game average in the bronze-medal game against Russia, delivering 26 points against Russia's 6-8 star, Maria Stepanova. "In Athens, she was a great athlete, but she wasn't a basketball player," says China coach Tom Maher of Chen. "I think now she's a basketball player."

Best Game By Becky Hammon

The Bronze medal game, between Russia and China. The South Dakota native and naturalized Russian citizen played her best when it counted most. After she had closed out her unusual Olympic odyssey by scoring 22 points in Russia's 94-81 win over China in the bronze-medal game, Hammon said, "The medal is icing on the cake. To take in the whole experience, to walk around in that village with some of the world's greatest athletes was a very humbling experience. For me it's been everything I've expected and probably even bigger. Probably even more, given all the craziness that has surrounded it."

"One World, One Playlist" Award

To NBA Entertainment, the orchestrator of the music, dance squads, trampoline teams and t-shirts launches that ensured there was never a quiet moment in the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. Seeing Russia fans wrap themselves in Russian flags and gyrate to "Let's Twist Again" during a break in Russia's semifinal against the U.S. was good fun, but it was topped in the second semifinal when China fans took a break from watching their team get pasted by Australia to stand up and happily shake their flags to "Waltzing Matilda".

Going Native Award

After the U.S. beat South Korea 104-60 in the quarterfinals, Fowles, sounding like she might have been hanging out with some of the breathtakingly gracious and polite volunteers who populate the Olympic venues, said, "First and foremost, I'd like to thank Korea." She went on to praise the Koreans' aggression and preparation. Then she thanked her teammates and coaches "for getting us ready and letting us know what Korea was all about." Four days later, after winning her final Olympic gold medal, Leslie topped all that by thanking the media for asking her all those questions over the years.

 
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