This Dream Team wins gold again

Sunday, August 29, 2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Three teammates, three Olympics, three gold medals.

Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes.

They've flown thousands of miles together, ridden countless buses, played dozens of games.

So there they were, celebrating with the unbridled joy of children at play, huddled under Old Glory as if it were a sheltering tent. They skipped around the court with their U.S. teammates, laughing and giggling and soaking up the adulation.

In what was Staley's last Olympics game -- and perhaps Swoopes', too -- the United States shook off early shooting woes and sloppy play to claim its third straight Olympic title on Saturday, a 74-63 victory over Australia.

"It's hard for me to think about suiting up without Dawn or Sheryl," Leslie said. "It's amazing to have these two players out there on the court."

The Americans won it by turning up the defense, crashing the boards harder in the second half and, most importantly, finding their shooting touch.

This was a team in every sense of the word, the most dominant in women's basketball.

It's a lasting reward for the three players who have led the resurgence of 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 golds and two world championships.

"We had an ultimate goal and that was to win the gold medal, and we did it," said Tina Thompson, who 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 during a 16-2 second-half run that erased a four-point deficit.

"We held our poise like the veterans always do," said Diana Taurasi, who joined 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 that Australian star Lauren Jackson had a miserable game, shooting 4-for-16 and managing just 12 points -- a far cry from her games-leading 24.4 scoring average.

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 over, but the Americans 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 closed to 63-57.

Thompson somehow kept her concentration with teammate Tamika Catchings sprawled on the floor at her feet.

Then, as if it were scripted, Staley 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." And as the final seconds ticked away, Staley dribbled out the clock, safe in the knowledge that she would be leaving with another gold medal.

"Dawn needed to finish with the ball," said Taurasi, who wrapped Staley in a bear hug and lifted her off the floor. "That's how it should end. That's how it did end."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: