BADALONA, Spain -- The thought of becoming the first basketball team in American history to leave an Olympics without a medal hit home with the U.S. women 32 1/2 minutes into their game with Cuba yesterday.
Trailing 67-66, the American women turned up their defense and went on an 18-4 run that sent them to an 88-74 victory and the bronze medal. Only the 1976 women's team (silver) and the 1972 (silver) and 1988 (bronze) men's teams have lost games in an Olympics.
"For as low as we felt for 48 hours, it would have been even worse to come out of today without any hardware," U.S. coach Theresa Grentz said.
Meanwhile, Natalia Zassoulskaia scored 19 points to lead the Unified Team to a 76-66 victory over China in the gold-medal game.
The Unified Team used the same formula for success that worked in its 79-73 upset of the United States in the semifinals -- use the bigger players to break the press and spread the floor on offense to create high-percentage shots.
Because of the bitter loss to the Unified Team on Wednesday, the American women opened sluggishly. After a 44-44 halftime tie, the U.S. women fell behind, 59-54. They looked as if they might lose their second straight game after winning 15 straight in Olympic play.
"You have to go out and play. You can't just die," U.S. guard Teresa Weatherspoon said. "We thought if we put pressure on them . . . we could knock them out real fast."
It was Weatherspoon and Teresa Edwards at guard who turned the game around and kept the team from an historic loss. They sparkled in the final 7 1/2 minutes and rattled the Cubans with their pressure defense in the backcourt to take an 84-71 lead. Edwards, a three-time basketball Olympian, led the United States with 18 points, five assists and five steals.
"There was too much pride on the line," Edwards said.
After center Tammy Jackson went inside for two points to give the United States a 68-67 lead, Edwards' steal and layup pushed the United States ahead by three. Weatherspoon forced a turnover, and forward Clarissa Davis scored on a jump shot for a five-point lead. Edwards' three-point basket with 5:55 remaining increased the lead to six.
The Cubans, who upset the United States in last year's Pan American Games, could not get closer than four after that. Thirteen turnovers in the second half doomed the Cubans.
Grentz delivered a halftime speech that the players said couldn't be printed in a family newspaper.
"It was very rough," Weatherspoon said.
"It was just time to get out there and get it done," Grentz said afterward. "You can't let 40 minutes of poor shooting [against the Unified Team] ruin the rest of your life . . . . It was devastating, but life goes on."