U.S. women's basketball survives scare, squeezes past Australia
The U.S. rallied from its first halftime deficit in 12 years to beat Australia
With increased defensive pressure, the U.S. used a 16-6 run to pull away
The Australians shot 61 percent in the first half to lead 47-43 at the break
LONDON (AP) -- Sue Bird had seen enough.
Her team was facing its first halftime deficit in the Olympics in 12 years, so and the usually quiet point guard spoke up and gave an animated halftime speech to her teammates.
They listened, then rallied past Australia 86-73 on Thursday.
"That's the thing about Sue, she picks her spots," U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said. "She does it when it's necessary. Says what needs to be said ... because she's not yapping all the time it means a lot."
Bird downplayed the effect of her halftime speech.
"Obviously, we were not happy, but we weren't deterred, nobody had their head hanging low or anything like that," she said. "We were ready for the next 20 minutes to see what would happen."
The Americans took a deep breath at the break, then used a pivotal 16-6 scoring run sparked by the their defensive pressure.
Auriemma turned to his Olympic rookies to lead the way.
The group - led by Tina Charles and Lindsay Whalen - pressured Australia into turnovers and bad shots, helping the U.S. reach the title game for the fifth straight time.
"We came out in the second half and once we got control of the game, it took off from there," Auriemma said. "It just illustrates it's only one night. If you have a great night and the U.S. has a poor shooting night or defensive night there goes the tournament."
Australia didn't have a great night, but they had a great half.
Behind the inside play of 6-foot-8 Liz Cambage, the Australians shot 61 percent and led 47-43 at halftime. It was the first time that the U.S. had trailed at the half in an Olympic contest since 2000 when Russia led the Americans by three. And with a chance at another gold medal on the line, an inspired U.S. squad regained the lead against Australia behind the play of the reserves, harrassing the Australians into just 4 of 18 shooting from the field in the third quarter.
The Americans will play France in a matchup of unbeaten teams.
Bird wasn't surprised at France's incredible run to the championship game. After all, the French had been her sleeper team all along.
"They're a team nobody really talked about heading into the tournament, but personally I knew that was going to be a team we might have to face," she said. "I've played with all their girls and know how talented they are."
It will be the first time since 1996 that the Americans won't be facing Australia for the gold.
"We knew before that to win the gold you have to beat Australia whether it's in the semifinal or the finals," Auriemma said.
Australia went right at the U.S. with Cambage leading the way but the Americans' depth and pressure defense were the difference again.
The Australians' budding star scored 19 points in the first half, she was scoreless in the second half.
Bird said stopping Cambage was the first of many things the Americans talked about during the break.
The priority was "not letting her get deep," Bird said. The U.S. point guard added that the strategy was to jam Cambage when she was running the floor and prevent her from getting low-post position.
"She is a big girl, when she gets you sealed on her back that low, what are you going to do?" Bird said. "It's almost impossible to stop her."
And the U.S. rarely did in the first half.
The second half was a different story.
"They shut us down" in the third, Cambage said. "I know I backed down in the third. I put a lot on me."
Bird said the U.S. turned the game around with its depth.
"They're not rookies," Bird said of her first-time Olympic teammates. "These aren't 21-year-old kids who have never played international basketball. Once again, that is where our advantage lies."
The Americans had cruised through their first six games winning by an average of 38 points before facing the No. 2 team in the world in the semifinals - a round earlier than they had met at the past three Olympics.
With the U.S trailing 56-55 in the third quarter and star Diana Taurasi sidelined with four fouls, Auriemma turned to his bench. The reserves responded, sparking the game-changing run.
Whalen started the burst by scoring the first six points and Seimone Augustus chipped in another four to help the Americans build a 65-59 lead at the end of the third quarter.
They also cranked up the defensive pressure; Australia shot just 4 of 18 from the field in the third.
"When we came in it was like ... whatever is there take it," Whalen said. "Be aggressive offensively and defensively and just come in and make plays."
The U.S. extended its lead to 11 on Charles' two free throws early in the fourth period and Australia could only get within nine the rest of the way. The Americans improved to 7-0 all-time in the Olympics against Australia.
Charles and Taurasi each scored 14 for the U.S. while Bird finished with 13 points.
The Americans have won the last four golds and 40 consecutive Olympic contests dating back to the bronze medal game in 1992. The top two teams in the world had met in the previous three gold medal games with the U.S. coming out on top. This was the first time they had played in the semifinals since 1996.
"I guess it is a little weird," Taurasi said of meeting Australia before the gold was at stake. "We've done a good job of taking everything in stride. We treat each game like a gold-medal game."
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