Unified ghost returns to haunt U.S. dream Gomelsky helps brother plot women's demise, 79-73

August 06, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- They lost to a coach using a potent family secret and a team making a glorious last stand. Some will call it the greatest upset in women's basketball history. But that's only because the history isn't very long.

Consider all the elements, and the Unified Team's 79-73 victory over the United States in yesterday's Olympic semifinals swiftly reduces to size. The outcome certainly was stunning,

but the U.S. women were miscast as Dreamettes, and the Unifieds were miscast as just another opponent.

For starters, the former Soviets were coached by Evgueni Gomelsky, brother of Alex Gomelsky, a mastermind with whom U.S. basketball fans should be familiar. Alex was coach of the Soviet men's team in 1988 -- the team that overcame John Thompson's full-court pressure to shock the United States.

The American women used similar defensive strategy, but thanks to the Gomelskys' pre-game huddling, the Unified Team ravaged their press in the first half. Suddenly, the United States didn't look like two-time defending gold medalists, or winners of a record 15 straight Olympic games.

"Same as Seoul," Alex Gomelsky noted slyly, but with an added motivational twist. This is the farewell competition for the former Soviet women's team. Starting with the 1994 Winter Games, the 12 affiliated republics are expected to send their own teams.

"For us, today's game was a way of saying goodbye because we won't be playing together again," said center Elena Khoudachova, the Unified Team's second-leading scorer with 19 points. "We celebrated this in the best way possible, by beating the Olympic champion."

The Unified Team, which lost to Cuba in the preliminary round, advanced to tomorrow night's gold-medal game against China. The United States won its three preliminary games by an average of 46 points, but now will play Cuba for the bronze. China, which had lost to the United States in the first round by 26 points, rocked Cuba, 103-70.

Predictably, the reaction of the American women was disbelief. They watched in silence as the Unified Team players gathered in a group embrace after the final buzzer, waving towels, jumping up and down. Then the U.S. team returned to its locker room, and stewed in silence some more.

"I sat in there numb. I couldn't cry. I couldn't do anything," guard Suzie McConnell said. "It is hard to believe. I'm just so disappointed. I'm finding it very hard to accept, playing for the bronze medal."

Said guard Teresa Weatherspoon, "I wouldn't say it's a shock. We're all just very, very hurt. It's going to be very hard to handle. It's like a scratch that leaves a scar. We're going to hear this for the rest of our

lives."

Every U.S. player but McConnell plays professionally in Europe and Japan. Every one believes the outcome would be different if the teams met again. "We can lace it up now," forward Clarissa Davis said, eyes moist. "But they deserved it. They played hard."

So, how will the Americans remember this? They trailed by six points at halftime, 11 after shooting 1-for-9 to open the second half. But they rallied furiously, outscoring the Unified Team 14-1 in a four-minute burst to regain the lead.

"That got us a little pumped up, a little fired up," Weatherspoon said. "But the Russians didn't die. They kept coming, kept coming. It was something we didn't really expect."

Indeed, the Unified Team repeatedly frustrated the United States with its zone defense, and its half-court offense kept producing quality shots. Unable to play its vaunted transition game, the U.S. team appeared confused and strangely out of

sync.

"Fantastic players, but team game? No, in my opinion," Evgueni Gomelsky said of the U.S. women. "Only fast break. Only pressing. But when zone defense from USSR team, problems, problems, problems. Their tactics, no good in my opinion."

Perhaps, but after tying the score for the last time with 5:25 left, the Americans missed five straight free throws, blowing their chance at an escape. They could have pulled within one after a steal by McConnell with 35 seconds left, but did not score.

In the end, they were burned by 6-foot-2 forward Natalia Zassoulskaia (20 points, eight rebounds), undone by their 16 turnovers, outshot 48 percent to 36.

"It just didn't happen," coach Theresa Grentz kept saying. "It just didn't happen."

Not against a coach using a family secret.

Not against a team making its last stand.

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