HAVANA -- When the clock finally ran out on an 87-84 loss for the U.S. women's basketball team, also bringing to an end a 42-game winning streak that began nine years ago, Brazil's Maria Paula Da Silva did cartwheels across the court at the Sports City Coliseum.
Brazil coach Maria Cardosa, who has suffered through defeat after defeat to the United States for 21 years -- 16 as a player, and five after moving to the head of the bench -- briefly considered joining her star guard before deciding to settle for the gymnastics that were being performed in her heart.
"We went to three Olympic Games on my money; we went to the [NCAA] final four three times on my money; we went to clinics all over the world on my money," Cardosa said in halting English of the search that she and her Brazilian coaching colleagues have made to find a secret, any secret, that would lead to a victory like the one yesterday in the Pan American Games.
"All the time, I say, 'We can beat the USA.' The girls didn't believe me, but I say, 'You can, you can.' I have faith all the time. I respect the USA as the best in the world. I don't believe my team is the best. The USA is the best. But today we beat them. I am so happy, so, so, so happy."
The United States had not lost to Brazil in the Pan American Games since the 1971 championship game at Cali, Colombia. In the next four Pan American Games between 1975 and 1987, the United States won three gold medals and a silver, losing only one of 22 games. Two of its victories four years ago at Indianapolis came at the expense of Brazil, 84-81 in a preliminary game and 111-87 in the final.
After a loss to the Soviet Union in the championship game of the 1982 World Championships, the United States, primarily because of federal legislation forcing college and university athletic departments to support women financially almost as vigorously as they do men, became the undisputed queen of the hill. During its winning streak, it took home two gold medals from each of the Summer Olympics, the World Championships, the Pan American Games and the Goodwill Games.
With 10 of its 12 players having experience in Italian or Japanese professional leagues, including four who had competed in past Pan American Games, and six six-footers to complement a backcourt of Teresa Edwards, Jennifer Azzi and Sonja Henning, the United States appeared invincible here. That is no longer the case, although it could still win the five-team, round-robin tournament that continues through next Sunday.
The United States started yesterday's game where it left off in Saturday's 87-70 victory over Canada in the opener, rushing out to a 26-8 lead. But Cardosa called a timeout, reminded her players to have the same faith that she did, and the game was on as Brazil scored 14 consecutive points to cut the lead to four.
Perhaps because floor leader Edwards, who has been with the national team since 1986, got into early foul trouble; perhaps because, as some players suggested, the team lost its intensity on defense; perhaps because of a crowd in the three-quarters full 12,000-seat arena that exuberantly lined up with the underdogs; perhaps because Brazil was the better team on this particular day, the United States never regained momentum.
"I don't know what happened," Edwards said afterward. "But at least it gave you guys a good story."
It is almost always a good story when Brazil plays because of the presence of Hortencia de Fa'tima Marcari Oliva, a jet-setting, shooting guard and one-time men's magazine centerfold who has become as comfortable in the society sections of newspapers as on the sports pages.
Raised in poverty outside Sao Paola, she earned $174,000 last season playing for an Italian team, but that is pocket change for her husband of 18 months, Jose Victor Oliva, a restaurant-nightclub owner who is known in Sao Paola as "The King of the Night."
In yesterday's game, Paula scored 22 points, and Hortencia scored 18. But Brazil no longer is a two-woman team, which was a critical factor in the victory, as center Marta De Souza scored 24 and forward Janeth Dos Santos added 14.
Edwards, who led the United States with 20 points, said she hoped that the loss served as a wakeup call for her team.
"I'm not stunned," she said. "I'm angry."