KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic – For four years, Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have carried the disappointment of losing in the semifinals of the 2006 world championship.
Now they are a step away from redeeming one of the only blemishes on their spectacular careers.
Catchings scored 14 points and Taurasi added 11 to lead the United States to a 106-70 victory over Spain and into the gold medal game of the women's basketball world championship.
"There's only three of us from that team in Brazil and it was one of the worst nights of my career," Bird said. "I don't think I've ever fallen short that way before. It stuck with everyone who was there. This was our chance to get rid of that terrible taste."
To completely remove it, the Americans will have to beat the host Czech Republic on Sunday. The championship is similar to the gold medal matchup in the men's worlds, where the U.S. beat host Turkey to win the gold.
"Tomorrow night is going to be one of the most difficult challenges for this team, playing the Czechs on their home court with all their fans," coach Geno Auriemma said. "It's been a Cinderella run for them. The emotions and energy this building is going to have. This will be a great place to be tomorrow."
Sylvia Fowles added 13 and Angel McCoughtry 11 for the Americans (8-0).
For the last two nights the Czechs have drawn sellout crowds, that included President Vaclav Klaus. Sunday night should be another incredible atmosphere.
"I know that the USA basketball people who were with the men in Turkey said that final game against the Turkish national team was about as good an environment as they'd been in ever," Auriemma added. "You got two things going on tomorrow. The Czech Republic is playing for a world championship on their home court. Even better, they're playing against the USA."
"If the Czech Republic wins a world championship on their home court. I might not go home on Monday to stay here for the celebration."
The U.S. once again got off to a strong start Saturday — scoring 11 of the first 12 points — in making up for the bronze medal finish at the 2006 worlds, where it lost to Russia in the semifinals. The Americans will be trying for their eighth gold medal in the worlds.
"It's going to be very important to get off to a great start," Bird said. "You can play in a lot of games, WNBA, college, and not the entire building is going to be cheering against you. We'll have our little section."
Marta Fernandez had 16 to lead Spain (6-2), which will take on Belarus for the bronze.
The Americans have run through their opponents, winning by 37 points a game. It's the most dominant performance ever by the U.S. at a world championship. How good is this team? They haven't trailed at all in the last four games and for only 21 minutes the entire tournament.
Catchings got things started by hitting a 3-pointer 14 seconds into the game. Taurasi added another 3 a minute later that made it 8-1.
Spain cut its deficit to 11-5, but the U.S. was just getting rolling. Another 3-pointer by Catchings made it 20-9 with 3:52 left in the period. By the end of the first quarter the U.S. led 29-16.
The Spaniards got within 34-22 early in the second, but another Taurasi 3-pointer and Bird's pull-up jumper extended the lead back to 17. On the next play Amaya Valdemoro hurt her ankle. The star guard, Spain's all-time leading scorer, sat out for 5 minutes while trainers worked on her leg before she returned.
Valdemoro labored on the court as the U.S. continued to expand its lead to 58-34 at the half. Though she didn't return in the second half, Spain scored the first six points to cut its deficit to 18 before the U.S. went on a 17-5 run to end any hope of a miraculous comeback.
For the second game in a row, the only suspense left in the fourth quarter was whether the United States would reach 100 points for the 17th time in world championship play.
Asjha Jones hit a jumper to put them over the plateau for the fourth time in the tournament, matching the 1994 squad.
Even with the loss, Spain is guaranteed of its best finish at the worlds. After beating France in the quarterfinals, Valdemoro said that she was as happy as she's ever been playing for her national team.
The Spaniards knew they'd be overmatched against the U.S., having lost to them in an exhibition game in September. The monumental task of an upset was even more difficult with star center Sancho Lyttle out because of a back injury she suffered in the quarterfinals.
"Valdemoro is fine," Spain coach Jose Hernandez said through an interpreter. "Sancho has a pain in her back, we'll see how she rests tonight. It depends on she feels in warmups."