Host Czechs await Team USA
Americans look to be inhospitable guests in Sunday's gold-medal game (2 ET, NBA TV)
Nobody loves hearing a roaring crowd go quiet with the swish of a basket more than Diana Taurasi does. She has hushed opposing fans all over the world in college, WNBA, overseas and USA Basketball games.
"It's probably the best setting you can be in as an athlete," said Taurasi, speaking by phone on the eve of going for a gold medal in hostile territory. "To be in someone else's gym, knowing you're not going to get a call, everyone cheering against you. It's really when teams and players play their best. Because all you have is the people on your team and your coaching staff, and you've got to really band together."
That will be the case Sunday, when the Americans meet the host Czech Republic in the FIBA World Championship final. Team USA beat Spain 106-70 in the semifinals Saturday. The Americans shot 60 percent from the field, the sixth time in their eight games they've been at 55 percent or higher.
Prior to Team USA's runaway victory, it was bedlam as the Czech team went to overtime in beating Belarus 81-77 in the other semifinal.
"I can tell you one thing," USA forward Swin Cash said. "From what I heard here today, if this crowd is anything like that [Sunday], I probably won't be able to hear myself think."
And, yes, she fully expects it will be like that. Just as the U.S. men's team did last month in facing host nation Turkey in the world championship final, the American women must be prepared for virtually the entire arena to be against them.
Taurasi has plenty of experience with that -- and we're not just talking about the sea of orange in Knoxville, Tenn., she faced back in the day. Playing for Euroleague titles the last several years with Spartak Moscow, Taurasi also has been in some intense enemy territory European-style.
"These European crowds get on you, and if things aren't going well, you can get lost in it," Taurasi said. "I think it's just the level of being into every play, from the jump. In the U.S., crowds tend to get louder as the games go on. In Europe, it's often full-on for the full 40 minutes."
The only team that really was close to staying with the United States for the entire game in this tournament was Australia, which most folks expected would be the Americans' foe in the final. But the Aussies were bumped to the consolation bracket Friday in the quarterfinals by the Czech Republic, a game that Taurasi watched knowing what it felt like.
Not just from her experience in the 2006 world championship in Brazil, when the Americans were upset by Russia in the semifinals. But also from further back: the semifinals of the under-19 world championship in July 2001. The Americans lost then to the Czechs in the Czech Republic -- the same kind of situation they'll face Sunday.
That was the summer after Taurasi's freshman season at UConn, when the Huskies had been defeated in the national semifinals. Taurasi was playing then on the U-19 USA team with other current WNBA players Cappie Pondexter, Monique Currie, Alana Beard, Nicole Powell, Shameka Criston and Jessica Moore. And, as is the case now, UConn's Geno Auriemma was the coach of the American squad.
Taurasi led the Americans with 25 points in that 92-88 loss nine years ago; she's the only player off that team who is on the U.S. senior team at this world championship. Two Czech players from the 2001 junior squad are now on their senior team. Eva Viteckova (29 points) and Jana Vesela (21) led the Czechs in that 2001 victory over the Americans. Saturday against Belarus, that same duo propelled the Czech Republic again, as Viteckova had 21 points and Vesela, who just won a WNBA title with Seattle, scored 15.
"It's like nothing is going your way, and the harder you try, the harder it gets," Taurasi remembered of that 2001 U-19 semifinal. "Obviously, their fans were into it, and it was a great game -- just like this [Czech] team has played its last two games here so well."
Saturday, against a Spanish team that didn't have injured WNBA standout Sancho Lyttle, the Americans looked very sharp again. Tamika Catchings led Team USA with 14 points. Sylvia Fowles had 13, and Taurasi and Angel McCoughtry 11 each.
The Americans will be attempting to win gold for the eighth time in the history of the women's world championship, which began in 1953. The Czechs have won two silvers and four bronzes in past world championships, but they have not medaled since 1975.
"I've been happy with the process that we've taken to get here," Catchings said. "I think every game and every practice we've had, we've continued to get better and closer as a team.
"We've been able to distribute the ball to one another really well, and know where everyone is offensively and defensively. We're really jelling, that's been the best part about this team."
And Catchings acknowledges that it is funny to think that six of her USA teammates, including Taurasi, all played for the college team that presented Catchings with her toughest road games when she was at Tennessee.
"Definitely playing at Connecticut -- whew!" Catchings said, laughing, when asked to recall some of the most fired-up opposing crowds she has faced. "That rivalry, just the fans, the chest-beating, all that. And in my pro career, playing at Phoenix, that atmosphere was great.
"For me, I tend to focus even more when there's so much going on around me. Like, 'This is a mission. I don't want to fail.' That's how I feel when put in that situation."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.