USA, Russia to renew rivalry in semifinals

Updated: September 21, 2006, 11:13 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

OK, there's not a whole lot to say, game-wise, about the U.S. women's 90-56 quarterfinal victory over Lithuania at the World Championship on Wednesday. It was more of the same, which the Americans can take pride in. Candace Parker (18 points) and Tina Thompson (15) led the way again offensively. Parker now has 12 blocked shots in the tournament, a Team USA record at this event.

Candace Parker
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesCandace Parker's 12 blocks through seven World Championship games already has broken the previous USA best (11 by Katrina McClain in 1990).

But let's talk a bit about the Lithuanian team, and how that connects to the Russians, who are the Americans' semifinal foe Thursday night (6:45 p.m. ET, NBA TV). And how that connects to so much of the history of the World Championship for women's basketball.

Lithuania was able to keep the game close (27-26) for the first quarter against Team USA. And considering it looked for a while as if the Lithuanians weren't even going to get to play in this tournament, for them to give the Americans one competitive quarter is pretty good.

On the eve of the World Championship, the Lithuanian women's team practiced in Martinique and was scheduled to fly directly to Sao Paulo, but had to stop in French Guyana after its direct flight was canceled. Yellow fever is present in French Guyana, so anyone traveling from there has to be vaccinated for the disease and then undergo a 10-day quarantine.

After the Lithuanians were stranded in French Guyana for three days, the Brazilian government suspended the quarantine regulation because it was determined that the Lithuanians' risk of having contracted yellow fever was quite low. Even so, the team didn't arrive in time for its first game, against Australia, and had to forfeit that one.

But even without all that hassle, the Lithuanians would have found the matchup with the United States an excruciating uphill battle.

According to the World Factbook, Lithuania's population is just less than 3.6 million. That's less than the number of people within Los Angeles' city limits. The estimate of females aged 15-64 -- and we'll assume no one outside that range would be on the national basketball team -- is 1.26 million. About the same number of people resides in San Antonio, minus suburbs.

So this really was not a fair fight, was it? Except … remember that Lithuania beat the United States men's basketball team at the Athens Olympics two years ago. The Lithuanian men have won three basketball bronze medals and have one fourth-place finish in the four Summer Olympic Games since the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. The Lithuanian men were seventh at this year's World Championship.

You might even have one of those Lithuanian tie-dyed T-shirts with the slam-dunking skeleton. Lithuania has a rich history in men's basketball, dating back at least to the 1930s. From 1940-1990, when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, native Lithuanians were standouts for the Soviet hoops team. There were four of them on the 1988 Soviet squad that won Olympic gold (the disappointing USA men's bronze at those Seoul Games prompted the Dream Team in 1992).

Meanwhile, at least one Lithuanian woman, Angele Rupsiene, also was a basketball success for the Soviet team, helping it win Olympic gold in 1976 -- the debut year for Olympic women's hoops -- and 1980.

That leads me to two points. First, there are about 50,000 fewer Lithuanian males aged 15-64 than females. So if the Lithuanian men can be competitive at a world level in hoops, the country is not necessarily hindered in its pursuit of national team success by a relatively small population. Which means that, like their counterparts in so many countries and in so many sports, the Lithuanian women need time and support to keep growing in basketball.

You could fill an encyclopedia, of course, with examples like this. There are plenty, in fact, at this World Championship. It's really the story of global women's sports. So I'm not picking on Lithuania. And it's important to note, again, that this is a country that has had to regain its independence twice in the last 100 years.

Which brings me to the second point: in another time and another place -- let's say 1983, the last time the World Championship for women's hoops was in Brazil -- any Lithuanian woman with significant skills in hoops would have been competing for the Soviets.

Now, the Americans play the Russians for a spot in the 2006 gold-medal game. That's an interesting historical rivalry, but one that's skewed a bit because "Russia" these days is not quite the same as "Russia" used to be. Not since it's no longer the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union was once the biggest power in women's basketball. The rivalry with the Americans goes all the way back to the 1950s. But it was pretty lopsided in favor of the Soviets for a long time.

The Americans won the 1957 gold-medal game in the World Championship -- it was also held in Brazil that year. The next World Championship was in Moscow, in 1959, and for obvious political reasons at the time, the Americans didn't participate. The host Soviets won, the first of their five consecutive titles at the World Championship.

The Americans didn't win the world title again until 1979 -- but the Soviets didn't compete that year because they didn't have diplomatic relations with the host country, South Korea.

In 1983 -- when current U.S. coach Anne Donovan was a Team USA player fresh out of Old Dominion -- the Soviets won gold at the World Championship again, beating the Americans twice.

"I remember in 1983, we were still the underdogs," Donovan recalled. "We struggled against the Soviets, but we made some progress improving as a team and getting ready for the 1984 Olympics, where we thought we would face them again."

That didn't happen, of course, because of the Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles Games.

Then in 1986, the Americans won a matchup in the Goodwill Games. Later that year in the World Championship -- in, of all places, Moscow -- the tide truly turned, as Team USA won the gold-medal game over the host Soviets by 20 points.

The Americans also beat the Soviets on their way to the 1988 Olympic gold medal … and that was the "end" of the U.S.-USSR rivalry … technically. The nations didn't meet in the 1990 World Championship, won by the United States. And by the 1992 Olympics, the Soviet Union was in full crumble; what was left of it competed that year as the Unified Team.

Even so, that Unified Team was good enough to beat the Americans in the 1992 Olympic semifinal and win the gold. When Team USA also failed to take gold in the 1994 World Championship (losing to Brazil in the semis) the decision was made to have a traveling squad train before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

And you know how that turned out: the Americans haven't lost at the Olympics or World Championship since. Team USA has defeated the Russians in the gold-medal game of the World Championship the last two times, in 1998 and 2002.

Obviously, I've just piled a ton of history on you. Take a breath and don't worry, there is no pop quiz.

But this is worth considering when you watch the Russians and the Americans face off: So much has happened on basketball courts over the last half-century between these foes.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.