United States 71, Spain 58

Thursday, August 19th 2004, 9:17 am
By: News On 6

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ The U.S. women's basketball team got just what it wanted against Spain _ a victory and a test.

Seriously challenged for the first time in these Olympics, the United States fought through foul problems and long stretches of frigid shooting to beat Spain 71-58 on Friday and clinch first place in its preliminary group.

The United States had won its first three games in Athens by an average of 31 points, but nothing came easily against a feisty opponent that made the Americans work for everything.

It wasn't decided until inside players Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson and Yolanda Griffith _ all of them in foul trouble_ led a 10-2 fourth-quarter run that put the Americans firmly in control.

Coach Van Chancellor's assessment? His team needed that kind of game.

``This was great preparation for us,'' Chancellor said. ``We needed to have to fight and overcome mystery calls, a lot of different things. We had to overcome a lot.''

Leslie led the United States with 19 points and had 15 in the first half, when she and Tamika Catchings provided the bulk of the Americans' offense. Catchings had 12 of her 14 points in the opening half, while Thompson had 15 of her 16 in the second half.

A key for the United States was getting Spain's Amaya Valdemoro under control in the second half. Valdemoro, who played for Chancellor's Houston Comets for three years, finished with 22 points but had only eight after halftime, when Catchings guarded her.

The United States finishes the preliminary round against China on Sunday and would take first place in Group B even if it loses. Spain (3-1) is the only team that could tie the Americans, and the U.S. team now has the edge head-to-head.

The quarterfinals, when the United States resumes its bid for a third straight gold medal, are Wednesday.

``I don't think we really look at it in terms of pool play and then medal play,'' Leslie said. ``It's one goal for one team and that's to win the gold medal. Eight games to get there. I know China is next and that's it.''

Winning that gold again will take a much better performance than the one on Friday.

The United States went nearly 10 minutes without a basket in the first half, shot 38 percent and was 2-for-12 from 3-point range. The Americans didn't take the lead for good until Dawn Staley zipped a pass to Sheryl Swoopes for a layup that made it 39-37 with 6:52 left in the third quarter.

Then, it started to come together.

Staley and Swoopes each hit a 3-pointer to help build the lead to 50-41, and the United States finally asserted itself at the start of the fourth quarter. Leslie scored off a feed from Swoopes, Thompson hit two jumpers from the left wing and Griffith scored twice inside.

It was 60-44 at that point and any hopes of an upset were gone.

``It's going to take a little more than a half to put teams away,'' Staley said. ``It takes a little time to get adjusted to the officiating and the pace of the game, but at the end of the 40 minutes, I don't think there's another team that can compete at this level.''

The United States did get off to its best start in these games. Turning sharp passes into layups, the Americans scored the first six points and led 13-6 after Leslie caught the ball on the right baseline, whirled and made a high-arching turnaround shot.

That came with 4:29 left in the first quarter. The United States did not make another basket until Leslie scored on a lob pass from Staley at the 4:39 mark in the second quarter.

Only the Americans' 7-for-8 free throw shooting and aggressive defense kept them in the game. Valdemoro was having success _ 14 first-half points on 5-for-9 shooting _ but the U.S. defenders usually got good pressure on the other shooters and clung to a 31-29 lead at halftime.

The third quarter got scary when Leslie, Staley and Griffith all picked up their third fouls. Thompson already had three and Griffith got No. 4 with 1:20 left in the quarter.

``We know it's going to happen again,'' Catchings said. ``It's not the first game, it won't be the last game we get into foul trouble. Being able to play different people in different positions, trying to pick each other up, we were able to get through it.''