US women's hoops team ready to start Olympic play

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Diana Taurasi and the U.S. women's basketball team open play Saturday against a team they just pounded by 54 points.

Not that the opponent matters.

Taurasi and the rest of the squad say they're just ready to play.

The U.S. begins its quest for a fifth straight gold medal against Croatia, which the Americans beat 109-55 a week ago in Istanbul.

"We're anxious to finally get on the court and play and get rid of those feelings of being anxious and nervous or whatever feelings anyone on the team has," Taurasi said. "The only way to get them out is to play in games. We'll be ready."

The U.S. has only had two weeks together to train since the WNBA season went on its Olympic hiatus. But anything less than another gold medal would be considered a colossal failure for the overwhelming favorite.

"We have one goal in mind and that's to win," said point guard Sue Bird, who will be playing in her third Olympics. "For us, I think with our limited training time even as we start the games, the learning part is not over. We have to take each game and improve. I know people will say we're playing Croatia -- 'they beat them by 54' -- it's another opportunity to play together and get better.

"That's how we'll keep progressing."

Despite the lopsided victory seven days ago, Taurasi expects the Croatians will play better on Saturday.

"It means nothing," Taurasi said of the exhibition blowout. "I think we've been around plenty of tournaments and plenty of competitions where that means nothing. They are going to come play their best basketball tomorrow and we expect that and we need to do the same thing."

Croatia's star center Marija Vrsaljko will play after missing the rout because she was getting married.

"She makes everyone else better," coach Geno Auriemma said of Vrsaljko. "We're going in with the idea that they are really good and they'll be better than they were in Istanbul. We'll concentrate on ourselves and what we need to do. Kind of use it as another way to practice and get better. Meantime while we're doing that, win the game."

Auriemma said he's ready for the games to begin after spending the last four years preparing for them. He's won over 800 games and seven national championships at Connecticut, but there's a nervousness that has hit the first-time Olympic head coach.

"The waiting, you know, that's what gets you," Auriemma said. "You have too many thoughts that go through your mind. while you're doing it you don't feel it. Leading up to doing it, that's when the butterflies and stuff starts to get to you."

While the gold medal game is still two weeks away, Auriemma can see the finish in sight.

"We're finally near the end of this marathon, now it's just a sprint to the finish," he said. "The players and coaches and everybody we just want to play. We waited all this time and had all this travel, we just want to play. We're not where we want to be, or need to be but we're not where we're going to be. we're going to play ourselves to where we want to be and tomorrow's the first day of that."

By the time they reached London on July 25, the team had traveled 6,750 miles, hitting three countries in just 10 days.

"That's absolutely huge that we're in the same place, not packing again for awhile," Auriemma said. "We know what our routine is. Game, practice, game, practice, game. Everybody gets a chance to get their body in rhythm with the Olympics. I think that's going to benefit everybody."

The U.S. will also face Angola, China, Turkey and the Czech Republic in pool play. The Americans beat the Czechs in the finals of the 2010 world championship to qualify for the London Games.