SYDNEY - At the opening ceremony for the 2000 Summer Olympics, the two Koreas marched together and rivaled the United States in the ovation they received. The bigger surprise, though, was in the opening round of the women's basketball tournament, when one Korea alone rivaled the U.S. on the court.
Playing without starting guard Chamique Holdsclaw, who woke up with pain in her right foot and was diagnosed with a stress fracture, the U.S. women were less than impressive in opening defense of their 1996 gold medal Saturday with an 89-75 victory over South Korea at The Dome at Sydney Olympic Park. Holdsclaw will be out at least until the medal round and possibly for the entire Olympics.
Confounding the Americans with an aggressive motion offense and nine three-point baskets, South Korea trailed by only one point midway through the first half and remained within 10 with three minutes to play. Although the U.S. never seemed in danger of losing the game, it also never distanced itself from what was expected to be an inferior opponent. The previous three times the teams played in the Olympics, the U.S. had won by an average of 36 points.
"The hardest thing about them," U.S. coach Nell Fortner said about the South Koreans, "is they either kick it out for threes or they put their head down and drive. And, the way we play basketball in this country is, if someone drives and you hit somebody, you stop. They didn't stop."
Not until an equally hard to defend American pair stopped them.
Sheryl Swoopes, after questioning whether she would even play in Sydney, led all scorers with 29 points, while Lisa Leslie had 24. The two combined for 59 percent of the U.S. offense, which will likely have to be more balanced for the Americans' next game, Monday against Cuba. Leslie, who also had 11 rebounds, was the player pushing the Americans on the few occasions they moved comfortably in front.
After the U.S. opened an early 21-14 lead, Leslie went to the bench and the Koreans started shooting three-pointers over the zone defense the Americans had switched to. They used a 9-3 run to pull within a point with 12 minutes, 16 seconds left in the first half, but Leslie re-entered the game, scored six points in an 8-2 spurt, as the U.S. went back up by seven.
Late in the second half, a Leslie field goal and two free throws in consecutive possessions gave the U.S. its largest lead at the time, 78-84 with 4:46 remaining, before Korea cut the gap again with late threes.
The last time the U.S. lead dipped as low as 10 was at 80-70 with 3:00 to play.
According to U.S. players, their ordinary-looking Sydney debut was more the product of South Korea's unorthodox offense than their own shortcomings Saturday.
"South Korea runs their offense very well," said DeLisha Milton, who scored eight for the U.S. "They cut hard and they continue to move. They make it really hard for you to stay with your defensive assignment, because when one's going this way, another's going that way."
Against Cuba Monday, the Americans can expect a more natural matchup, but no less a challenge.
"They'll get out and run, we'll get out and run. It will be a good game," said Fortner. "Right now, I think Australia's very good, Russia's very good, Brazil is very good and Cuba. At this point, it's a tournament and everybody is playing as hard as they can play. We won't know until we get there what's going to happen."
The U.S. should know, however, that they will have to play better than they did Saturday to maintain their golden image.