LONDON -- On Saturday night the U.S. women's basketball team will play for a fifth straight Olympic gold medal, which would represent an unprecedented run of dominance in women's team sports. But before they can make further dynastic claims, the Americans have one final opponent standing in the way of their gold medal, and for the first time since 1996, it's not Australia.
After dispatching the Aussies 86-73 in Thursday's semifinal with a second half of ferocious defense, the U.S. now faces France, a team that, at first glance, seems just happy to still be here. After beating Russia 81-64 in Thursday night's semifinal the French players danced and sang in celebration on the court, and their coach, Pierre Vincent, said his plan, postgame, was "to party." He added, "This is an exceptional moment in time for us, and we have to make the most of it."
True, just getting to the final game is a big deal for the French, who've made only one previous Olympic tournament -- in 2000, where they finished fifth. Their women's basketball tradition has been spotty at best: though they have won two European championships, in 2001 and 2009, their best finish in the world championships was third place -- in 1953. And unlike their American counterparts, who have methodically bulldozed their London opposition by an average of 34 points a game, the French have eeked out many of their wins, requiring overtime to beat Australia and winless Great Britain. On paper they don't look like they will present a significant challenge to the Americans. On Thursday Vincent went so far as to call the U.S. team "invincible."
But U.S. coach Geno Auriemma doesn't buy the idea that the French will be content to claim their silver medal and go home. "The object tomorrow is not, 'If we lose we lose, we're supposed to lose. It's the Americans,'" he says. "I don't think they'll come with that attitude. If they do, they are going to get their ass kicked. But I don't think they are going to do that. They're too smart, too experienced, they've been around too long."
And they have some formidable weapons. France's point guard, Celine Dumerc, leads the tournament in total scoring (her 106 points ties Australia's Liz Cambage's total) and is hitting threes at a 58% clip, also best in the tournament. "She's maybe been MVP of this tournament so far," says Auriemma. "She's been terrific."
Dumerc is complemented on the inside by 6'4" center Sandrine Gruda, who grabs nearly six boards a game and leads the field in blocked shots (2.1 per game) and 6'3" center Isabelle Yacoubou, France's second-leading rebounder (5.4 per game.)
"Yacoubou is just a smaller version of (U.S. forward) Candace (Parker)," says Auriemma. "She knocks you on your butt, she's very physical. Whoever is guarding her tomorrow has a tough matchup. They better get some rest tonight, 'cause that girl is hard to keep off the boards."
As a group, France presents some of the same challenges Australia did. They have a formidable frontline, and they are very familiar with each other. "They've been together a long time, they've spent a long time preparing for this," says Auriemma. "They're very, very disciplined. They don't do anything that's crazy; they don't take a lot of risks. They are just a good, solid, hard-nosed team. Some teams you can beat because they're dumb or they are undisciplined. You just know they are going to shoot themselves in the head. This team isn't going to do that. France isn't going to lose the game; you have to go out and beat them."
The U.S. isn't likely to lose the game, either. After allowing Australia to shoot over 60% and 6'8" center Liz Cambage to score 19 in the first half of their semifinal on Thursday, the Americans got an earful about teamwork from captains Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. In the second half the U.S. locked in defensively, made better shots and pulled away to win 86-73. "That's a side of me that this team hadn't seen because I really haven't had to bring it out," said Bird on Friday. "We weren't really pushed to that point. I think in those moments you find out what you're made of, as individuals, as a team. To have gone to that place is going to be valuable come [Saturday]."
Auriemma agrees. "Forty minutes of the way we played in the second half [against Australia] and we'll be fine," he says.
France will need extraordinary performances up and down its roster to pull off what would be the upset of the Olympics. "We've been playing better every game," French guard Edwige Lawson-Wade said Thursday night. "We played very well today. But USA is very good in every position of the court, so we have to play the perfect game in defense and offense to have a chance. It doesn't happen very often but it happens."