ATHENS, Greece -- Dawn Staley knew she wasn't going to be the point guard for the U.S. Olympic team forever. So she has carefully cultivated a few candidates to pass the torch to.
One of her picks proved to be a good one on Friday against the Russians.
Shannon Johnson, known to her teammates as Pee Wee, played an aggressive game offensively and defensively, drew a team-high five fouls and split time with Staley in Team USA's 66-62 semifinal win, its closest game of the Olympics so far.
While Staley called her protégé's performance "excellent," Johnson seemed to downplay her role, saying the bench players "just try to bring a spark."
But a spark was exactly what the United States needed late in the third quarter when the Americans found themselves in a five-minute scoring drought. Diana Taurasi got them back on the board with an off-balance baseline jumper. Johnson got them back on a roll, penetrating for two key baskets at the end of the third quarter for a 51-44 lead.
"We were struggling on offense and weren't putting the ball in the hole," Johnson said. "Coach just told me to take the ball to the basket. A couple of times I went before, I just wasn't able to knock the shot down. He just told me to keep my confidence and knock the shot down."
Johnson, who earned her nickname after being the shortest player on her sixth-grade volleyball team, only recently became a key player for Team USA. And she credits the 34-year-old Staley, her role model, for helping her become one.
"(Staley) actually talks to me when I'm out there on offense and defense. She's probably one person who can get on me as much as coach can," said Johnson, who, despite her nickname, is two inches taller than the 5-foot-5 Staley. "She wants the best for me. She knows that every time she says something, I'm listening because I know how good she is.
"Even when she's played against me in the WNBA, she's told me, 'You've got to bring it every night, even if you're playing against me.' When you hear a player like that talk, you know that they only want the best for you."
Johnson, who turned 30 on Aug. 18, has been a part of USA Basketball since 1993 and was selected as an alternate for the 1998 World Championship and 2000 Olympic teams. She didn't crack the lineup for a major international tournament until the 2002 World Championships in China. She averaged 16 points there during the medal round and was named to the all-tournament team as the United States claimed a second straight title.
Staley took the time to help Johnson develop because of the desire Staley saw in her during the last 10 years.
"She's been trying to get on the Olympic team for a very long time," Staley said. "Finally, she played well enough to make a team. She gives us an added boost off the bench. She's hungry; she never gives up on plays. She wants to contribute."
The time for Staley to hand off the torch is now. This is her last Olympics, and while she'll likely be selected to help coach the 2008 team, the transition won't be completely seamless. Staley and Johnson are two different types of players. Staley runs the floor with a calm demeanor and specializes in distributing the ball. Johnson is more aggressive at both ends of the floor, either drawing fouls or forcing turnovers.
But if Johnson is going to be one of the players to take over Staley's position -- 23-year-old Sue Bird is the other candidate -- Staley said she'll have to modify her game.
"She might have to give back a little bit, not shoot so much, not go to the hole so much," Staley said. "That is her role on our team. But she's got to get that other part, that calm where you've got to get people in places they might not want to be but it's the right place."
With only one game left in her Olympic apprenticeship, Johnson said she's paying close attention to the lessons Staley is passing on.
"She's a coach on the floor, off the floor. Anytime you play with her or anytime you're around her, you learn something different about her," Johnson said. "She's a bright woman, she's giving her gifts. She's not the tallest, but she's one of the great leaders on this team."