Olympics Preview: Women's Basketball (Finals)

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A sixth consecutive Olympic gold is one victory away. The US will play Spain in the gold medal match today at 2:30 p.m. ET after defeating France 86-67 in their semifinals match-up. Earlier in group play, the US beat Spain 103-63, in a game that a one-sided affair from beginning to end.

“We’re ready for the gold medal game. We’re not going to come out playing (around), we have to be serious and really get this, because it’s going to be a different game. People might say, “Oh, they just played Spain and beat them by 40 points. It’s going to be a different ball game on Saturday. Very different,” Angel McCoughtry said after the victory over France.

It was the USA’s 48th consecutive Olympic victory, and of those 48 victories, just one was decided by fewer than 10 points. This particular victory was not without some struggle, which is rare to see from the US women. Then again, it is very rare to see the US not lead by Sue Bird. She’s not just the starting point and a captain on the US team but she’s been the model of consistency, playing a vital part in the current winning streak in Olympic play while winning three gold medals with the team in 2004, 2008 and 2012.

Bird was sidelined with a knee injury she suffered with 6:33 left in the second quarter of Tuesday night’s 110-64 win over Japan in the quarterfinals. The US team was scrambling for direction as they floated through the first half of play without her. “You don’t replace Sue. We all know that” guard Diana Taurasi said. “Been on too many teams with her and I know how valuable she is to a team. Our success is because she’s been the quarterback. She’s the director of it all. To say we’re not going to miss her … would be silly.

Against France, the typically silky smooth play of the US became more of a grind-out victory than complete domination. Before the start of the second half, Bird huddled up the team offering up words of encouragement and instructions on how to gameplan for the second half, this is what the team needed from their injured leader.

The US came out with renewed focus after halftime, going on a 14-5 run to start the 3rd quarter, giving the US some much-needed breathing room against France extending their lead to 17, ending the quarter with what looked be a comfortable lead of 21. France didn’t stop competing, with 2:19 left in the fourth quarter, France trailed by 11, never allowing the US to run away with the game but they couldn’t cut the lead down anymore.

Spain has had a different path to the gold medal matchup, advancing by outlasting Serbia, 68-54. The two teams combined to shoot just 37 percent from the field and 21 percent from the 3-point line, behind a 44-31 rebounding advantage, and 29-12 free throw attempt advantage, Spain controlled the tempo throughout this sluggish affair, rebounding advantage and an ability to consistently get to the free throw line made the difference. With Brittney Griner and Breanna Stewart anchoring a much taller American frontline, Spain will have to find others way to get their offensive going.

“Well, we played them in the championship game in Istanbul in the (2014 FIBA) World Championship and obviously they’re an experienced bunch, they’ve played together for a long time. They’ve got great guard play and Torrens is one of the best scorers in the world. But they do a great job of playing together and they play well defensively, they execute their stuff, they’re really well coached,” Head Coach Geno Auriemma said when asked about the finals matchup.

Regardless of the outcome, Spain is now in line to win their first medal in Women’s basketball, even if captain Sue Bird has to sit out the game, the US team is expected to win their sixth consecutive gold. Not many anticipated a deep run by Spain, they were destroyed by 40 points earlier in pool play by the US, then needed some luck to reach the finals, using an insane buzzer-beater by Anna Cruz to reach the semifinals, avoiding a matchup with the other powerhouse in the tournament play Australia, who lost a close contest to Serbia, 73-71 in the quarterfinals. Given what was expected of them Spain is due a lot of credit for the impressive feat of reaching the finals.

Speaking of credit, is Team USA getting the recognition they deserve? That’s one of the story lines emerging from Rio, the US women’s basketball team is constantly be compared to their male counterparts, but let’s look at how they both played to perfect records during group play. The US men first struggled to beat Australia and then they fought hard to slip past Serbia and France. The women handled their business with much more power and focus, never trailing after the first quarter of any of their six games, setting Olympic records for victory margin and points scored in a 121-56 defeat of Senegal.

Still media coverage of the men’s team often leaves the women’s team in the shadows, After the US women’s victory over France in the semifinals, a reporter asked star guard Diana Taurasi if the team was getting due recognition.

She had a sarcastic answer.

“Hey, we’ll see after Saturday,” Taurasi said. “Run around naked. We’ll all get attention, win or lose.”

It’s highly unlikely that we’ll be seeing that but it’s almost a certainty that we will see Taurasi wearing one thing on Saturday, a gold medal around her neck.

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