Defense driving U.S. game

Updated: August 25, 2004, 2:18 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Sitting on the gym floor, her sneakers off and back against the wall, Sheryl Swoopes looked and felt relaxed. Practice was over and soon she'd be spending the rest of the day with her 7-year-old son, Jordan.

Swoopes knows to savor such moments because, on the basketball court, things are getting tense in these Olympics.

The medal round is here.

First up for Swoopes and her teammates: a quarterfinal game Wednesday with Greece, not the strongest of opponents, but certainly the best supported.

"There's definitely more pressure on us now that we advanced," Swoopes said. "I think people expect us to come here and win the gold medal. We expect to win the gold medal and we're not going to be happy or satisfied with anything less than that.

"But it's going to be tough."

The United States has swept past every team in its path so far in its drive for a third straight gold medal. With strong inside play, relentless rebounding and harassing defense, the Americans won their five preliminary round games by an average of 29 points.

Though a bit costly because guard Katie Smith was lost with a knee injury, the games served their purpose of giving the U.S. players a chance to become a team. While some of the players trained together off last winter and spring, coach Van Chancellor never had everyone together until they assembled in New York on Aug. 2.

"Not to say I doubted our team, but there probably were a few question marks because we didn't have much time together," said Swoopes, who's playing in her third Olympics. "But to see how far we've come ... I'm very confident in every player we have on this team.

"I feel like every player deserves to be here. Every player on this team is going to contribute in one way or another, whether they play two minutes or 30 minutes or seven minutes."

The most obvious problem has been turnovers, an average of 19 a game. Too many passes have sailed out of bounds instead of into the hands of a teammate.

"We're turning the ball over sometimes because we're careless and then we are too unselfish," Chancellor said. "We're giving up shots. We ought to go ahead and shoot the ball instead of trying to pass to a teammate. It's the first time in history a coach has said we ought to quit being so unselfish."

The turnovers haven't been critical because the United States has forced so many itself with that nasty defense. The Americans are averaging 16 steals a game and have held opponents to 33 percent shooting.

"We're winning, we're playing well, our chemistry is great," Tina Thompson said. "We're moving forward. We're in the medal round, so this is kind of all or nothing right now. It's time to put it all out there."

No one is enjoying this experience more than Thompson, who has been one of the top players in the WNBA for years but was never on an Olympic or world championship team before this. Not that she hadn't tried. She just had some rotten luck.

Injuries kept Thompson off the world championship teams in 1998 and 2002, both of which won gold medals, and she was only an alternate for the 2000 Olympic team, missing out on the gold medal run in Sydney.

When USA Basketball asked her to be part of the core group for Athens, Thompson had to think about it. Did she want to set herself up for the possibility of more disappointment? Then she thought about winning a gold medal and that did it.

"I guess that's the gist of it, to win the gold medal," Thompson said. "And the group of players that had been put together was awesome. I think that definitely helped in making my decision, being a part of such a special group."

The United States-Greece winner will play the Russia-Czech Republic winner in Friday's semifinals. In the other quarterfinal bracket, Australia meets New Zealand and Spain plays Brazil. Australia was the silver medalist in Sydney and Brazil took the bronze.

The semifinal winners meet Saturday for the gold; the losers play for the bronze.

"Right now, we haven't done anything in our minds," Chancellor said. "Because in the USA, you're measured by how you do in the medal round. Nobody cares what we did in those other five games. What we're measured by is what we do in the next three."

The U.S. team will play those games without Smith, a 2000 Olympian and a deadeye on the perimeter. Smith tore cartilage in her right knee in Sunday's game with China and will miss the rest of the Olympics.

Diana Taurasi, who led the team with 19 points against China, will get the minutes Smith would have played.

"The way she practiced [Tuesday], she's ready," Chancellor said. "She had a great game the other night. She's rolling right now."

And so is the entire team.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press