ATLANTA -- A year on tour, two weeks in the spotlight, and now, the U.S. women's basketball team is right where it wants to be:
In the gold medal game at the Summer Olympics.
Yesterday, Team USA battered Australia, 93-71, in front of 31,854 at the Georgia Dome. The victory set up tomorrow's gold-medal game with reigning world champion Brazil, an 81-60 winner over Ukraine.
Center Lisa Leslie led the Americans with 22 points and 13 rebounds. Katrina McClain added 18 points and 15 rebounds, and Sheryl Swoopes added 16 points.
Down by eight points early, their biggest deficit of the Atlanta Games, the Americans took control with a 27-4 run that showcased them at their running, scoring and rebounding best. It showed why this team is 59-0 since late October, when its pre-Olympic tour began.
"It's a little like an egg timer, now, with just a little bit of sand left in it," said Team USA coach Tara VanDerveer.
"We're relieved we made it this far," added Leslie.
The Americans will be playing for their first gold medal since the 1990 World Championships. The United States was ousted in the semifinals at the 1991 Pan Am Games, the 1992 Olympics and the 1994 World Championships, a series of crushing defeats that forced the American program to retool.
Before the 1996 Games, the Americans went on tour, amassing experience, victories and publicity. In Atlanta, they have become the real basketball stars, their games attracting far more fan reaction than the play-by-the-numbers exhibitions involving the U.S. men's Dream Team.
"We didn't sacrifice for anything less than a gold," said guard Ruthie Bolton, who had 12 points.
For the Americans, the Brazilians are the perfect gold-medal foil. Brazil beat the United States, 110-107, in the semifinals of the 1994 World Championships in Sydney, Australia. After the game, the teams shared a bus back to the hotel and the Brazilians actually danced the ride away.
Even though it's likely the Brazilians would have danced even in defeat, the Americans are upset by the memory.
"They did celebrate and they should have," VanDerveer said. "But they rubbed it in a bit."
The Americans have dominated their opponents, but the Brazilians will be difficult to defeat. They are led by the veteran backcourt tandem of Hortencia Marcari Oliva and Maria Paula Silva.
"I think Brazil can beat them [the Americans]," said Australian coach Thomas Maher. "It will be an interesting game, if Brazil's stars can perform well and take it to them."
But the Americans figure, they've got the home crowd, the momentum, and the shooters to win.
"We have the best perimeter players in the game," said guard Dawn Staley. "But you can't take any player or any team for granted. It's going to be a great matchup."
Pub Date: 8/03/96