Behind Auriemma, women's bball team plays for gold
LONDON -- Geno Auriemma never thought he'd have a chance to coach the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team.
He had heard the talk: He was too abrasive, too politically incorrect.
None of that mattered to USA Basketball and when Auriemma was offered the job he 2009, he jumped at it. Now he has the U.S. women's basketball team one victory away from a fifth straight gold medal.
The Americans will play France on Saturday night in the Olympic final.
"Being able to coach this team, there are no other opportunities you could possibly hope for," Auriemma said. "For me, winning the gold medal is something that I probably won't be able to talk about or fully express until it actually happens, cause I'm sure you can't prepare for it, how you're going to feel or what it means to you personally."
For all his perceived faults, Auriemma has proven to be the right choice.
He is used to the pressure of being expected to win and knowing that anything less than a title is considered a failure. He has guided UConn to seven national championships, including four perfect seasons and an NCAA record 90 straight victories.
The U.S. team, which has won an unprecedented four straight gold medals and hasn't lost a game in 16 years, hasn't missed a beat under Auriemma.
It helps that half the players on the Olympic team are UConn alums, used to his system and his personality.
"Coach really hasn't changed much," said Diana Taurasi, who helped Auriemma win three NCAA titles in college. "He's the same guy, just gives us a little more freedom now that we're older and pros. He listens to us more. Everyone knows what coach has done for women's basketball. He brought a different point of view to things.
"It's not all flowery, flowery women's basketball. It's not just skirts and cupcakes. Sometimes there's some steak and cussing. That's life, it's not all that pretty."
Taurasi fully supports Auriemma and said if the Americans win the gold medal the first thing she'll do is "put it around his neck. That's how much he means to me."
Before that can happen, the Americans have to deal with upstart France, which is playing well in only its second Olympic appearance.
"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," said U.S. point guard Sue Bird.
France is undefeated in the tournament like the U.S. although the Americans have beaten teams by 34 points a game, France just eight.
Nonetheless, Bird knows a win won't be automatic.
"I've played with all their girls and know how talented they are," she said.
Both teams are assured of walking away with at least the silver medal, but anything less than gold for the Americans would be considered a monumental failure.
The Americans have cruised through the Olympics during their remarkable run. Only one team has come within single digits of them since the streak started in 1996. They've won by nearly 30 points a game. The Americans have only lost once in major international competitions since 1996 with the lone blemish coming against Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 world championship.
The U.S. faced its first challenge of the London Games when Australia took a four-point halftime lead. It was the first time in 12 years that the Americans had been trailing at the half. There was no panic or worry. They just stepped up their defense and vanquished the Aussies, winning by 13 points.
The players are very aware of the legacy.
"This is USA Basketball's streak," Candace Parker said. "We're just trying not to be the people that end it. I want a second gold medal. There are people that want a third. And some are looking for their first. So all of us are fighting for something in our own way."
First order of business is winning the gold -- which would extend the streak.
"We've been taking it one game at a time all along, so this is just the next one," Bird said. "Obviously there is a lot more at stake, but we really aren't thinking that way."
France already has made great strides -- clinching its first medal ever in women's basketball.
The victory over Russia in the semifinals set off a wild celebration for the unbeaten French, who have been on the rise in women's basketball over the past few years. They won the European Championship in 2009 and qualified for the Olympics for the first time since the 2000 Sydney Games where they finished fifth. In this tournament France has already defeated Australia in an overtime thriller and now topped Russia twice.
A win over the Americans would be incredible.
"Nobody talks about us. We don't exist in the Olympic Village," said French coach Pierre Vincent. "The only way to exist is to win. I told the girls in the locker room, if we win, we will exist."
The French have been led by flashy point guard Celine Dumerc. She has been the catalyst for this remarkable run. Her 3-pointer with 0.2 seconds remaining in overtime helped beat Britain in the preliminary round. She also hit a big 3-pointer against Australia and two clinching free throws in the team's four-point win over Canada.
"She's having a tournament for the ages," U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said of Dumerc. "She's definitely been the MVP."
Bird wasn't surprised at France's incredible run to the championship game. After all, the French had been her sleeper team all along.
It will be the first time the two teams have played in the Olympics. France isn't scared of the world's top team.
"They are a very good basketball nation. I play against them the whole year round," French forward Sandrine Gruda said. "It's going to be good. We're not going to give up because it USA. We're competitors."
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Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
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