BEIJING -- As soon as the U.S. and Russian women's basketball teams had listened to their national anthems before the start of Thursday's first Olympic semifinal, they jogged toward each other to exchange gifts. But
That's how early the Americans' defensive effort started their 67-52 win. And the U.S. team needed every stop it could get through a horrendous first half of offense. After shooting better than 50 percent from the field -- and blowing out teams by an average of 43 points -- through their first six Olympic games, the Yanks were suddenly launching bricks, blowing layups and fluffing free throws, all while the pro-Russia crowd booed and whistled their every possession. With most of the first half gone, the U.S. was shooting 25 percent at the free throw line, and that mark was actually better than its two-point field goal clip of 24 percent.
The offensive fiasco -- and the hostile crowd -- was eerily reminiscent of the Americans' loss to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 world championships in Brazil. This time, however, the team defense came through. After eking out a 33-32 lead in the first half, the U.S. held Russia to 20 points and 25 percent shooting. Hammon, who had been Russia's top scorer going into the game (13.2 ppg), scored just three points, and all of them came in the fourth quarter.
"I think we were almost too pumped at the start of the game. We couldn't catch the ball," U.S. assistant coach
Good team defense allowed the U.S. players to exhale.
"We knew we'd have nights where we'd struggle offensively," Thibault said. "But if we could become a really good defensive team, we could play through bad stretches of offense. When we played in the world championships two years ago, we didn't do either well. We just weren't a good defensive team. Defense has been the emphasis of practice two-thirds of the time here."
In the gold medal game on Saturday, the U.S. will have a familiar foe in Australia, which beat host China 90-56 in the second semifinal despite the absence of star forward
In eight years since their first Olympic final in Sydney when
"I don't think there's too much difference between the two teams these days," Aussie guard
And depth. With superstars like
"It's not even close," said U.S. assistant coach
Australia has other concerns: Taylor, if she plays, won't likely be at full strength, and Jackson has been enduring a nagging ankle injury that will require surgery as soon as the Games are over.
"It's going to be a real toughie for us, but tough for them, too," Aussie coach
The U.S. will have to be at its best, too. But after surviving the game against Russia despite a forgettable night on offense, the U.S. players are confident they can withstand whatever Australia throws at them.
"It's easy to win games when you're making shots and everything is going your way," said