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U.S. women’s basketball not easing up in bid for Olympic gold

By K.C. Johnson, Chicago Tribune –

LONDON — Obviously, Sue Bird can’t join the British populace who are allowed to wager on these Olympic Games.

But if the three-time Olympian were so inclined — and even if she were allowed to, she would decline — her women’s tournament bracket would be spotless.

“France was my sleeper team,” Bird said. “I could’ve won a pool.”

Even early in this tournament, Bird was one of the few to be praising France, a surprise opponent opposite the U.S. in Saturday’s women’s basketball gold-medal game. Making just its second Olympic basketball appearance, France is guaranteed its first medal.

But it’s a safe bet that had Bird made her picks, she’d have the U.S. celebrating a 41st straight Olympic victory and an unprecedented fifth straight gold medal when the matchup is complete.

The streak “is not something we think about daily or at all,” Bird said. “The one thing I can say is in Brazil in 2006, I was on that team that lost (to Russia in the world championships) for the first time in a long time. We got a bronze medal. And it was a terrible feeling.”

Team USA’s 13-point semifinal victory over Australia, in which it trailed at halftime in the Olympics for the first time since the third game at the 2000 Sydney Games, dropped its average margin of victory here to 34.1 points. That’s dominance.

But Coach Geno Auriemma need only point to France’s record — 7-0, just like Team USA’s — to remind all that work remains.

“Everybody on the outside always talks about U.S. and Australia as if we’re the only two teams in the tournament that are any good,” Auriemma said. “That’s certainly not the case. The gold-medal game is Saturday night. Hopefully, our players don’t think this (semifinal) was the gold-medal game.”

Don’t worry, Geno. They don’t.

Bird praised guard Celine Dumerc, France’s captain and emotional leader. Candace Parker pointed to France’s depth, which featured six players scoring in double figures in its 17-point semifinal victory over Russia. And several players talked about the emergence of Edwige Lawson-Wade and Isabelle Yacoubou.

“Yacoubou is a player whose game has just elevated in the last year,” Bird said. “So you have this core group and then all these pieces around them that didn’t make the last Olympics. This is their chance, and I thought that mix would make them a very dangerous team.”

Still, a French victory would rank as a monumental upset for the Olympic annals. The U.S. remains heavily favored. And that would mean Bird, Diana Taurasi and Tamika Catchings would leave London with their third gold medals in an astonishing run of overall program success.

“For the three of us, it’s definitely been a joy moving from when we were the youngest on the team and not being able to say anything to this year being the captains,” Catchings said. “What better way than to cap this off with a victory?”


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