Aussies face tough semifinal task

Short of somehow being able to protect Penny Taylor from an ACL injury earlier this year, Australian star Lauren Jackson has done everything she can to try to win Olympic basketball gold.

Jackson skipped the first half of the WNBA season with the Seattle Storm to train with her fellow Aussies in preparation for the London Games. She has mentored younger players such as Liz Cambage. She has seemed pinpoint-focused on the one prize left in the sport that she hasn't yet claimed.

Most expected LJ and her mates to run into the red, white and blue wall in the women's championship game in London, just as they did in Sydney, Athens and Beijing in the previous three Olympics. But the Aussies' overtime loss to France last week scrambled the Group B bracket. It means that next, after a 75-60 quarterfinal victory Tuesday against China, Australia will face Team USA in the semifinals on Thursday.

Well, there is a bright side to this for the Aussies: The United States' only losses in international play in the past 20 years have come in the semifinal round: to the Unified Team in the 1992 Olympics, to Brazil in the 1994 world championship and to Russia in the 2006 world championship. It appears that if there's any time to chop down the giant, it's in the semis.

That said, the Aussies have yet to show their best basketball at these Summer Games, so they'll have to raise their level against Team USA. The loss of Olympic veteran Taylor can't be overstated, with how much she's missed by the Aussies and her WNBA team, Phoenix.

In her absence, Team Australia's attack has been mostly the big-girl show: 6-foot-5 Jackson, 6-4 Suzy Batkovic and 6-8 Cambage. That's a lot of "big," and it eventually wore down China on Tuesday, with the three combining for 29 points and 20 rebounds.

But the Aussies also had an alarming stretch in the second quarter in which they couldn't get much going offensively. Considering Team USA's defense has been the story of this tournament, the Australians know they might not be able to recover from a similar offensive slump in the semifinals.

Is it impossible for Australia to win? Of course not, especially considering the presence of three-time WNBA MVP Jackson and the experience/camaraderie of the Australian team. But saying it's highly improbable seems fair.

Consider that in its last international loss, at the 2006 worlds, Team USA had some flaws. Lisa Leslie missed the event because of family concerns. Sheryl Swoopes, then 35, wasn't entirely healthy. Dawn Staley was coaching, not playing. Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Candace Parker and Seimone Augustus were then all age 25 or younger; Parker was still in college at Tennessee.

And in a game in which the Russians shot extremely well, Team USA got tight and couldn't stay poised enough to weather the challenge. That's unlikely to happen to this very experienced group in 2012, even if Australia plays quite well.