If Hammon were not Russia's leading scorer over the past six games Bird and her teammates might not give her much thought as they prepare for this long-awaited matchup. Long before Hammon entered the picture, the U.S. had a score to settle with Russia after losing to the Russians in the semifinals of the 2006 World Championships. That ruined a long international winning streak and was "a piece of humble pie," as
No U.S. player who was on that team will forget the noise in the arena in Sao Paulo during that game or the silence in the locker room afterward. Beating the U.S., says Bird, made Russia's tournament. "It didn't matter to them that they came in second [to Australia]," she says. "We knew that, but to experience it, to hear the entire gym, including Australian players who were sitting in the stands cheering for Russia against us, that is much different from just knowing it. I think we learned a lot from that loss. We're not going to take anything for granted."
Specifically, the U.S. can't assume the 43-point victory margin, the 13-rebound margin, or the significant height advantage it has enjoyed over its first six opponents in Beijing. Russia's center,
"Becky's doing a great job for them," says U.S. assistant coach
Unlike the U.S., Russia hasn't looked consistently good in this tournament, losing to Australia 75-55 early on. But Bird says that neither that loss nor her team's winning streak will mean anything on Thursday night. "Sometimes [winning] these games can give you a false sense of reality," she says. "The good news is we have a lot of people who have been here before and know that the first five six games might not be the toughest. I understand Russia hasn't been playing that well, they lost to Australia by a lot, but that doesn't matter. You get into the semis, I guarantee you they are going to play the best game of their lives."
That's what Australia (6-0) will be expecting from host China (5-1) in the night cap. China is coached by Aussie
Australia enters this game banged up. Star forward
The guess here is that Australia, with or without Taylor, will overwhelm China, and that the U.S.' depth will wear down Russia. If both things come to pass, the U.S. and Australia will play for the gold medal, on Saturday, for the third straight Olympics, and more friendships -- Bird and Jackson are WNBA teammates, as are Taylor and Taurasi -- will have to be put on hold.