U.S. women edge rival Australia for Diamond Ball title
HAINING, China -- Standing on the podium waiting to receive their FIBA Diamond Ball tournament gold medals, the United States women's basketball team had only one thought on their minds: This was only a dress rehearsal. The real performance begins now at the Olympics.
"Being here is great but this wasn't the real show," said Candace Parker, who scored 12 points in America's 71-67 win over Australia in the gold medal game. "It was like an audition for the Olympics. We passed the pre-Olympic test but now we're going to go and take care of business."
This was the first meeting between these two rivals with both teams at full strength since the 2004 Olympics gold medal game, won by the Americans 74-63.
"This is all locked away," said Lisa Leslie, who led the U.S. with 14 points. "This is rehearsal. Now we're getting ready for the big game."
Before Tuesday's game both teams said this contest was merely a tuneup for the Olympics and nothing more. Yet the physical play spoke differently. Players on both teams hit the floor after hard fouls and the game had the feel of an Olympic gold medal matchup not a meaningless game.
"I don't think there has every been a game when we played Australia when it wasn't physical," said Leslie.
Penny Taylor, who led Australia with 19 points sported a blackened left eye after the game. Something she surely will remember if the two teams do meet again in the Olympics.
"I've got a souvenir to take with us," Taylor said, pointing to her eye.
Both teams were raving about having such a high-quality tuneup right before the Olympics.
"I've been to three Olympics games and this Diamond Ball is by far the best in terms of preparation," said Australia's Lauren Jackson, who finished with 16 points in the loss and was named the tournament's MVP. "Everyone has their full teams and the top three teams in the world are here. It's a great lead up to the Olympics."
The Americans were leading 67-65 with 2:04 left when Leslie hit a layup to extend the advantage to four. Taylor answered with a twisting layup on the other end to make it a two-point game.
With the shot clock winding down, Tina Thompson hit a jumper from the corner to restore a four-point lead. Then Australia turned the ball over on its next two possessions, sealing the win for the U.S. team.
"This was a great tournament for us in terms of our preparation and I couldn't have asked for more," U.S. coach Anne Donovan said.
The U.S. was also tested by Latvia in its first game. Latvia proved it could be a potential spoiler in the Olympics, beating Russia in the opener. Aneta Jekabsone averaged 29 points for Latvia against the two powerhouse teams and made a strong impression.
"She can play on my team any day," U.S. guard Sue Bird said. "I think she would do well in the WNBA."
While Latvia was impressive, Russia looked disjointed. Becky Hammon made her Russian debut and could lead them only to one victory over Mali in the fifth place game.
In the much-hyped game against the United States, Hammon and her Russian teammates were no match for the Americans.
"You take the win with a grain of salt," Donovan said. "Russia will be ready once the games start."
Russia has notoriously looked out of sorts early on during international tournaments before coming on strong later. At the 1998 World Championships, the United States routed Russia by 36 points in the preliminary round before needing to rally from a nine-point halftime deficit to beat them in the championship.
Mali showed it could compete for short periods of time, but viewed the tournament as a chance to just improve.
"Our goal in the Olympics is to try and beat New Zealand," said Mali forward Kadiatou Kanoute, who played her college basketball at Fordham. "That's the team that we think we have a shot to compete against. The rest of the time is just a learning experience for us."
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press
MORE OLYMPICS HEADLINES
- Durant, USA pull away from Spain to win gold
- Clippers' Paul has successful surgery on thumb
- Schmitt back to school after Olympic stardom
- Olympian Raisman, Poland Spring sign deal