ATHENS, Greece -- The U.S. women's basketball team got just
what it wanted from New Zealand in its Athens opener: a nice, easy
tuneup for the rest of the Summer Games.
With five players scoring in double figures, the Americans
turned it on after a slow start and rolled past New Zealand 99-47
Favored to win its third straight gold medal, the United States
showed why, extending its Olympic winning streak to 18. New Zealand
appeared well prepared but was no match for the Americans'
athleticism, speed on the fast break, quick hands and feet on
defense that resulted in 18 steals and six blocks.
"Nobody can say we weren't prepared. Nobody can say we quit,''
New Zealand coach Tom Maher said. "It was just monumental.''
Swin Cash, playing her first game in the Olympics, led with 19
points. Sheryl Swoopes scored 14, Lisa Leslie had 13 and Diana Taurasi
12 and Tina Thompson 11.
And the U.S. team did it without starting guard Katie Smith, the
outside shooting specialist sidelined by a bruised right knee. She
hasn't practiced since the WNBA season ended July 31 and it's
uncertain when she'll play.
Angela Marino led New Zealand with 13 points.
The United States had less than two weeks to get ready and the
lack of time together was apparent when New Zealand zipped to a 7-0
lead in the first 93 seconds.
But the U.S. defense never relented after that and the Americans
broke it open offensively after coach Van Chancellor replaced his
starting five with a new unit at the 4:49 mark in the first
"I wasn't a very happy camper,'' Chancellor said. "They had us
what, 7-0? We hadn't thought about guarding anybody. We turned it
over five times. I said let's see what the other five can do. They
couldn't do any worse.''
It was just what the team needed.
Former Connecticut stars Taurasi, Cash and Sue Bird joined Yolanda Griffith and Shannon Johnson on a 20-3 run, turning a 10-8 deficit
into a 28-13 lead at the quarter break. From then on, the game
became little more than an exhibition of American talent and
"I like to call it first starters and second starters,'' Leslie
said. "It's an advantage to sit and gather yourself and see a
group come on with lots of energy. We came out a little flat, a
little nervous and they got it going.''
It was 63-24 at halftime, thanks to a 10-0 U.S. run at the end
of the period, and the lead grew to 46 just after three minutes
into the second half. If it wasn't over before, it was then.
The only downside for the Americans: 27 turnovers and 26 fouls.
But they forced 29 turnovers and had a 58-28 rebounding edge.
"Sometimes it's hard to get a good chemistry, but so far we've
been willing to put the egos aside, the minutes and points aside
and just go out to win,'' Taurasi said.
Highlights? There were many.
Dawn Staley stole the ball and fed Thompson for a layup that
turned into a three-point play. After going scoreless for the first
13:18, Leslie converted a three-point play, scored on a putback and
hit a jumper from the left wing -- all in 32 seconds.
Swoopes blocked a shot at the top of the key, got fouled going
to the basket and sank two free throws. The 6-foot-5 Leslie blocked
a shot inside with a light flick of her right wrist and scored from
the top of the key seconds later.
When New Zealand's Julie Ofsoski got the ball to the left of the
key, Ruth Riley, Tamika Catchings and Griffith all soared in to
block the shot. Catchings was called for a foul, though on a replay
it appeared that none of three made any contact.
When it seemed that Griffith had ended the first-half scoring by
making two free throws with 4.9 seconds left, Catchings stole the
inbounds pass and laid the ball in before most reporters looked
back up from their notepads.
This was all in startling contrast to how things started for the
Americans. In a word -- terribly.
Leslie was stripped of the ball and called for charging on the
first two possessions. Catchings missed a jumper the first time the
United States took a shot. Meanwhile, New Zealand scored on a
driving layup, a 3-pointer and a backdoor layup in taking a 7-0
lead, prompting a timeout by Chancellor.
That was all it took. The United States scored the next eight
points and New Zealand made only one field goal over the next 10½ minutes.
"I'm pretty confident we have the talent to dominate, but on
any night it can be hard,'' Cash said. "If we go out there and
play together, you'll see this.''