ATHENS, Greece – Three members of an NCAA (search) championship team, a two-time Olympian and a quick, experienced guard — all on the floor at the same time. The U.S. second string can overwhelm opponents, too.
With a jump start from the reserves, the American women turned it up after an awful start and rolled past New Zealand 99-47 Saturday — step No. 1 in the U.S. team's bid to win a third straight gold medal.
"Our first unit knows the second unit won't have a letdown," said Swin Cash (search), one of the reserves and the top scorer with 19 points.
Those first five also know this: mess up and you sit.
"That's the great thing about coaching USA Basketball," coach Van Chancellor (search) said. "When you're not happy with the first five, you've got another five just as good."
Or as starting center Lisa Leslie put it, "I like to call it first starters and second starters."
Chancellor was, indeed, unhappy with his starters. New Zealand had zipped to a 7-0 lead and was up 10-8 when Chancellor made his move at the 4:49 mark in the first quarter.
In came Cash, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, all members of Connecticut's unbeaten national championship team in 2002; Yolanda Griffith, who played in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and point guard Shannon Johnson.
The turnaround was immediate and decisive. In just 2:47, Cash scored off an offensive rebound and made a free throw, Taurasi hit two 3-pointers and Griffith scored five points. By the end of the quarter, the United States was on a 20-3 run and leading 28-13.
So much for those New Zealand upset hopes. And it would only get worse for the team known in its homeland as the Tall Ferns. It was 63-24 at halftime, thanks to a 10-0 run, and the Americans led by as many as 55, leaving New Zealand to search for any sort of consolation.
"I felt the margin could have gone up to 80," said New Zealand coach Tom Maher, who coached Australia to the silver medal in 2000. "So I'm grateful that my players were able to cut it to 40."
Sheryl Swoopes led the U.S. starters with 14 points and Leslie finished with 13 — plus an ugly nine turnovers. Taurasi had 12 points and nine rebounds and starter Tina Thompson scored 11.
Angela Marino led New Zealand with 13 points, including three 3-pointers.
"That No. 6 (Marino's number) can shoot," Chancellor said. "It seemed like she had 25."
It also seemed — for a while anyway — that the United States would never score. The U.S. team had less than two weeks to get ready and is playing without shooting guard Katie Smith, sidelined by a bruised right knee. The lack of time together was apparent in the opening minutes.
On the first two U.S. possessions, Leslie had the ball stripped and was called for charging. The first time the United States managed to get a shot, Tamika Catchings missed a wide-open jumper. In the meantime, New Zealand scored on a driving layup, a 3-pointer and a backdoor layup.
"I wasn't a very happy camper," Chancellor said. "They had us what, 7-0? We hadn't thought about guarding anybody. We turned it over five times. I said let's see what the other five can do. They couldn't do any worse."
Once the Americans got rolling, they dominated with their athleticism and quick hands and feet on defense, making 18 steals, blocking six shots and forcing New Zealand into 21 percent shooting.
"It's an advantage to sit and gather yourself and see a group come on with lots of energy," Leslie said. "We came out a little flat, a little nervous and they got it going. I'm just glad I got to play with them for a while."
The only downside for the Americans: 27 turnovers and 26 fouls. But they forced 29 turnovers and had a 58-28 rebounding edge.
"Sometimes it's hard to get a good chemistry, but so far we've been willing to put the egos aside, the minutes and points aside and just go out to win," Taurasi said. "But that's what we're all about."
Chancellor would like to keep it that way for seven more games.