United States 66, Russia 62

Friday, August 27th 2004, 10:59 am
By: News On 6

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ Sheryl Swoopes was in a funk. Her shots kept rimming out, she wasn't getting many rebounds, she was struggling to find a way to help her team.

With her U.S. basketball team clinging to a two-point lead against pesky Russia, Swoopes got the ball and then heard Dawn Staley shout, ``Shoot!''

She did, hitting two key baskets in the waning minutes and complementing them with a big defensive play as the United States advanced to the gold medal game with a 66-62 semifinal victory over Russia on Friday.

``I hadn't really done much the entire game,'' Swoopes said. ``I just wanted to be in the right place at the right time.''

Now the Americans are in the place they've wanted to be all along _ the grand finale with a chance to make it three Olympic titles in a row. They'll play Australia on Saturday, a rematch of the 2000 final in Sydney.

The United States won that game 76-54, hushing a boisterous crowd of Aussies.

``That's who we want to play and they want to play us,'' Lisa Leslie said, ``so let's have it out.''

That goes double for the Australians, who beat Brazil 88-75 behind Lauren Jackson's 26 points and 13 rebounds.

``We're very happy,'' Penny Taylor said. ``We know what we're up against. We know it's going to be a great task for us.''

It will be the final Olympic game for the 34-year-old Staley and perhaps for Leslie and Swoopes, though they haven't said for sure. The three already have two golds and led the resurgence in U.S. women's basketball internationally after the Americans came away from the 1994 world championships with only a bronze.

``Dawn said before the game, `This is going to be my last one and somebody's standing in my way,' `` Swoopes said. '``They couldn't take my first one, they can't take my last one.'''

Russia came close, putting up by far the sternest challenge to a U.S. team that had won its previous six games by an average of 29 points.

The Russians limited the Americans' inside game with their size and didn't buckle under the pressure defense that had rattled so many previous opponents. Turnovers were troublesome; Leslie, Yolanda Griffith and Tamika Catchings were on the verge of serious foul trouble and Russia just wouldn't go away.

Enter Swoopes, who hadn't made a basket in the game.

With her team ahead just 60-58, she buried a jumper from the left wing with 3:54 remaining, barely beating the shot clock. She deflected a Russian shot at the other end, then scored again, hitting a 10-footer from the left baseline to make it 64-58 with 3:15 left.

``That is the golden player,'' Staley said. ``We know she'll shine at the end of the game.''

When Leslie fed Tina Thompson for a layup, it was 66-58 with 2:50 to go, enough of a cushion for the United States to hold on for its 24th straight Olympics victory.

Swoopes, who missed her first five shots, said: ``It felt good for me to know that my teammates understand I'm struggling, but they still have the confidence in me to get the ball and get the job done.''

Russia, losing to the United States for the sixth straight time in Olympic and world championship play, got 13 points from Tatiana Shchegoleva and 11 from 6-foot-8 Maria Stepanova.

``Psychologically, we were not fit to win,'' Stepanova said. ``We were not ready to win even though we were trying very hard.''

Thompson led the United States with 14 points, including a key 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter. Leslie and Catchings scored 11 each and Catchings made an absolute pest of herself by poking the ball away, intercepting passes and running down loose balls. She finished with five steals and five rebounds.

``We've been through everything now,'' Catchings said. ``Now it's a matter of refocusing for the game tomorrow.''