Originally created 10/01/00

U.S. wins women's basketball gold



SYDNEY -- If it was going to go bad for the United States women's basketball team, this is when it was going to happen, in the not-so-final stages of the final game of the tournament and against a country that has been turning everybody else into the road team here in Sydney.

The Americans had done a good job getting rid of Australia early Saturday, opening up a 13-point lead by the end of the first half. And they had been even better at taking the Australian fans out of a gold-medal game involving one of their teams, which so far had been as tough here as taking the sticky out of cotton candy.

But now was when the game would be decided, because now was when the Aussies made their big push, which it seems they've done every day in every sport since these Olympics started. Whenever you turned around, there was some local doing something unexpected, somebody in green and gold near the lead and causing half the stands to chant "Oi, Oi, Oi."

And there they were again Saturday, midway through the second half of a game the U.S. had been controling tighter than Olympic security.

Annie La Fluer scored on a layup and Trish Fallon made another with a foul shot added, and the Aussies were within eight points with 13 minutes to go. They were as close as they had been in the previous 12 minutes. And their fans were as insane as they had been all night, leaving the choreographed cheers in favor outright delerium.

This is when a lot of teams would have disappeared. But it was when the Americans showed just what kind of presence they've been at these games, how they've seen everyone's expectations and raised them an accomplishment.

It happened again Saturday.

"We just had to start getting the ball back inside," said U.S. coach Nell Fortner, who so instructed her team during a timeout with 12:50 left. "We were having some lapses, taking some quick shots and some uncontested shots and there was no need for that.

"The shots were on the floor for us. We just needed to be a little more patient, and they did it."

Of course they did. Because that's what kind of team Fortner has, one that makes the right plays, sacrifices flash for function.

So, after the coach basically told them to go play well, they did. Lisa Leslie worked inside for a basket and Natalie Williams followed with two more, the second a three-point play. Yolanda Griffith scored in the middle and then beat everyone off the dribble for another basket. Sheryl Swoopes converted a break and Nikkie McCray finished another one, and all of a sudden, USA 53, Australia 45 with 13:44 left had turned into USA gold, Australia silver less than she even minutes later.

They needed something, and it was there, the product of four players scoring and 12 working together.

"We had players just going in one after another and getting the job done," said Leslie, who scored 15 points Saturday. "This was a great team effort."

By what you could call the team of the 2000 Olympics, America's team, that is.

Locally, the Australian field hockey team was more celebrated. Internationally, the Lithuania men's basketball team that took the U.S. to the final minute twice might have achieved a greater surprise.

But no team had a better Olympics on the floor than the U.S. women who won their games by and average of 25 points and won their games as a group, the way they did Saturday. That team won its second straight gold medal, playing more like a team than a dozen superstars could be expected to.

That's the wonderful mix this group has met. They're the world's best at what they do, yet they play like a bunch of high school kids just trying to make the team. And that hasn't been the style for the U.S. men, who have neither the talent edge over the rest of the world they used to enjoy, nor the cohesion of Saturday's champions.

Where the women adapted styles, the men have been largely without one. Where the women have been winning games easy, the men have been fighting. Where the women have impressed, the men have distressed.

"I thought the team did a good job of keeping distance between themselves and the other team tonight," said Fortner.

And that only figures.

Because the U.S. women have maintained their distance above the rest of the world in basketball better than the U.S. men. That was noticeable Saturday, when they needed to protect a gap again. And when they did it just as soon as they were asked to.

There used to be only one team atthe Olympis capable of doing that. There still is. Except now it's a ladies model.