Team USA turns to Thompson down stretch

ATHENS, Greece -- With a nine-point lead and the gold medal firmly in Team USA's grasp, coach Van Chancellor began emptying his bench with 17 seconds left in the game.

Lisa Leslie. Dawn Staley. Sheryl Swoopes. The veteran core came off and began the celebration of their third straight Olympic title.

Tina Thompson? She began crying her eyes out.

Thompson has shared a lot of basketball memories with her teammates -- college games, WNBA titles, national team victories -- but she had never shared Olympic gold. She was too young in 1996, having just finished her junior season at Southern California. She was chosen as an alternate for the 2000 team, but that squad had plenty of depth at forward.

Thompson never doubted her ability as a basketball player. There wasn't anything in particular she needed to improve. Her game, maturity and attitude were solid. It was just a matter of not being in the right place at the right time.

Until Saturday.

Trailing Australia by four points -- the Americans' first second-half deficit of the Games -- Thompson found herself guarded by Suzy Batkovic instead of WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson, who had switched to guard Leslie. Staley, the U.S. starting point guard and unofficial assistant coach, identified the mismatch and told Chancellor to call Thompson's play.

Thompson responded by sinking two key baskets from the left side, which stalled the Australians' run. She added six more points after that -- a team-high 18 in all -- as the United States turned a four-point deficit in the third quarter into a 10-point lead in the fourth, ultimately winning 74-63.

"If we didn't have Tina Thompson on that floor today, we probably wouldn't be sitting up here as happy as we are right now," Swoopes said. "It was a great team win for us and Tina was a huge part of that."

Thompson has been overshadowed by bigger-name players for most of her career. She was a freshman at USC when Leslie was a senior. After an All-American college career, she was the first overall pick by the Houston Comets in the WNBA's inaugural draft in 1997 and immediately helped the Comets win four straight titles (1997-2000).

But with Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper garnering all-league honors -- and Chancellor copping three straight WNBA coach of the year awards -- Thompson was viewed as just another player on the team.

But on Saturday, Thompson didn't play second fiddle to anyone.

"I told her in the dressing room, 'You know, you put four rings on my finger, you helped make me the Olympic coach, and tonight, when the pressure was on and we couldn't find anything ... " Chancellor said. "The coach doesn't get a gold medal, but I have one around my heart so it doesn't matter."

Earlier this year, when USA Basketball invited her to be a part of the 2004 Olympic team's core, she hesitated. Thompson was reluctant to endure more disappointment. But then she thought about Staley, Swoopes and Leslie and their Olympic gold medals.

"It's unbelievable. It's really, really, truly unbelievable," Thompson said. "Right now, we're the 12 best women's basketball players in the world. And that is simply amazing. And although we thought that it could be possible and that was our ultimate goal, it's happened and there's no denying it. We have the hardware to prove it."

Now she has one of her own.