Published August 10, 2012
| Associated Press
Now this was something new. The U.S. women's basketball team faced its first Olympic halftime deficit in 12 years Thursday night as it tried to reach the gold medal game for the fifth straight time.
Not to worry.
The Americans took a deep breath at the break, then used a pivotal 16-6 scoring run sparked by the their defensive pressure to rally for an 86-73 win over Australia.
U.S. coach Geno Auriemma turned to his Olympic rookies to lead the way.
The group — led by Tina Charles and Lindsay Whalen — pressured Australia into turnovers and bad shots, helping the U.S. reach the title game for the fifth straight time.
Behind the inside play of 6-foot-8 Liz Cambage, the Australians shot 61 percent and led 47-43 at halftime. But with a chance at another gold medal on the line, an inspired U.S. squad regained the lead behind the play of the reserves, harrassing Australia into just 4 of 18 shooting from the field in the third quarter.
The Americans will play France for the title on Saturday night.
It will be the first time since 1996 that the Americans won't be facing Australia for the gold.
"We knew before that to win the gold you have to beat Australia whether it's in the semifinal or the finals," Auriemma said.
Australia went right at the U.S. with Cambage leading the way but the Americans' depth and pressure defense were the difference again.
The Australian's budding star scored 19 points in the first half, she was scoreless in the second half.
Sue Bird said stopping Cambage was the first of many things the Americans talked about during the break.
"Not letting her get deep," Bird said was the priority. The U.S point guard added that the strategy was to jam Cambage when she was running the floor and prevent her from getting low-post position.
"She is a big girl, when she gets you sealed on her back that low, what are you going to do?" Bird said. "It's almost impossible to stop her."
And the U.S. rarely did in the first half.
The second half was a different story for Cambage.
"They shut us down" in the third, Cambage said. "I know I backed down in the third. I put a lot on me."
Bird said the U.S. turned the game around with its depth.
"They're not rookies," Bird said of her first-time Olympic teammates. "These aren't 21-year-old kids who have never played international basketball. Once again that is where our advantage lies."
The Americans had cruised through their first six games winning by an average of 38 points before facing the No. 2 team in the world in the semifinals — a round earlier than they had met at the past three Olympics.
With the U.S trailing 56-55 in the third quarter and star Diana Taurasi sidelined with four fouls, Auriemma turned to his bench. The reserves responded, sparking the game-changing run.
Whalen started the burst by scoring the first six points and Seimone Augustus chipped in another four to help the Americans build a 65-59 lead at the end of the third quarter.
They also cranked up the defensive pressure; Australia shot just 4 of 18 from the field in the third.
"When we came in it was like ... whatever is there take it," Whalen said. "Be aggressive offensively and defensively and just come in and make plays."
The U.S. extended its lead to 11 on Charles' two free throws early in the fourth period and Australia could only get within nine the rest of the way. The Americans improved to 7-0 all-time in the Olympics against Australia.
Charles and Taurasi each scored 14 for the U.S. while Bird finished with 13 points.
The Americans have won the last four golds and 40 consecutive Olympic contests dating back to the bronze medal game in 1992. The top two teams in the world had met in the previous three gold medal games with the U.S. coming out on top. This was the first time they had played in the semifinals since 1996.
"I guess it is a little weird," Taurasi said of meeting Australia before the gold was at stake. "We've done a good job of taking everything in stride. We treat each game like a gold medal game."
Cambage kept Australia in the game for the first half. She made eight of her 12 shots to give the Australians a 47-43 lead at the break. It was the first time that the U.S. had trailed at the half in an Olympic contest since 2000 when Russia led the Americans by three.
"This was the first time at the half that we've been playing where I've been a little upset with them," Auriemma said. "Everything we wanted to be in the first half Australia was."
Cambage's only shot in the second half was a wild 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down.
"They started playing zone and that threw us off in the third quarter," she said.
Lauren Jackson finished with 14 points for Australia.
A gold medal is one of the only things lacking from Jackson's impressive career. She's won a world championship, two WNBA titles and is the Olympics all-time leading scorer. Yet she's come up just short in her four Olympic appearances against the U.S.
The Australians have already had the two most memorable moments in women's basketball at the Olympics. Belinda Snell hit a 50-foot heave to send a game into overtime and Liz Cambage had a dunk against Russia, which might have been the first in Olympic history.
For one half, they looked to be on the verge of another unforgettable moment — an upset of the favored Americans. Instead, they ran out of gas.
Australia came into the London Games off a disappointing fifth place finish at the 2010 world championship. The Australians are missing star guard Penny Taylor, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in the Euro League finals in April. They lost a pool game to France — the first time they were beaten by a team other than the U.S. in the Olympics since 1996.