ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ The United States shook off early shooting woes and sloppy play to claim its third straight Olympic gold medal Saturday, a 74-63 victory over Australia that was ugly but immensely satisfying for the Americans. They did it by turning up the defense, crashing the boards harder in the second half and, most important, finding their shooting touch _ something the U.S. men's team failed to do.
So while that team of wealthy NBA stars prepared to play Lithuania in the bronze medal game, the women who will bring home a basketball gold celebrated with the unbridled joy of children at recess.
The gathered at center court and draped a huge American flag over their heads. They skipped around the court, smiling, waving and soaking up the adulation.
They had played as a team throughout these Olympics, willingly sharing the ball and not worrying about playing time or stats, and they celebrated the same way.
U.S. men, take note.
``This is incredible,'' said Dawn Staley, who played in her third and final Olympics. ``I have to share this with so many people _ people in the United States and Spain, people who come from humble beginnings. This gold medal is for them.''
Staley, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes all will leave Athens on Sunday with their third gold medals, and that seems fitting.
They have led the resurgence in U.S. women's basketball internationally after disappointing bronze medal finishes in the 1992 Olympics and 1994 world championships. They gave their time to training and travel and were joined by other players similarly committed.
The result: 25 straight victories in the Olympics, three Olympic golds and two world championships.
``We had an ultimate goal and that was to win the gold medal,'' Tina Thompson said. ``And we did it.''
Thompson led the United States with 18 points, including a clutch 3-pointer in the fourth quarter. Staley, usually a passer instead of scorer, came up big with 14 points. Leslie scored 13 and Shannon Johnson had 12, including eight in a short stretch when the United States started to pull away after trailing by four.
``We held our poise like the veterans always do,'' said Taurasi, who was named to the team after leading Connecticut to its third straight NCAA championship. ``This is just the greatest. I wouldn't trade it for the world.''
It certainly didn't hurt the Americans that Australian star Lauren Jackson had a miserable game. Jackson, leading the Olympics with a 24.4 scoring average, shot 4-for-16 and managed just 12 points.
Coach Jan Stirling said Jackson was bothered by an intestinal virus. Jackson, the WNBA's leading scorer, said that wasn't so.
``I was fine,'' she said. ``It was just pregame nerves, nothing really. I have no regrets. We left everything on the court.''
Penny Taylor gave the United States problems with her aggressive drives to the basket and led Australia with 16 points. But she was ineffective after getting her third and fourth fouls 20 seconds apart in the final minute of the third quarter.
That was when the United States made its move.
With her team trailing 49-45, Taurasi calmly sank a 3-pointer to cut the lead to one. Johnson tied it at 50 with two free throws and then, with time about to expire at the end of the third quarter, she drove into the lane and banked in a turnaround shot to make it 52-50.
The game was a long way from being over, but the United States led the rest of the way. A driving shot and two free throws by Johnson helped build the lead, and then Thompson stepped up, hitting a 3 from the right wing after Australia had closed to 63-57.
Thompson somehow kept her concentration with teammate Tamika Catchings sprawled on the floor at her feet.
Then, almost as if it were scripted, it was Staley who provided the finishing touches.
In the final 1:37, she made two free throws, drove the lane and scooped in an underhanded layup. She then made two final free throws as the American fans waved flags and chanted ``U-S-A, U-S-A.''
``I still have a little bit of offense left in me,'' Staley said. ``I was able to hit a couple of open shots. My teammates found me. Lisa even gave me the ball down in the low post for the first time in 16 years.''
This was a team that had said anything other than a gold medal in these Olympics would be failure.
This team didn't let it get away.