Swoopes sparks U.S. to win over Russia
She missed her first five shots, but then led the team to a 66-62 win.
By PAUL HAGEN
PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS
ATHENS -- It's an Olympics basketball game, not a geography test.
So there was no reason why Sheryl Swoopes shouldn't have taken control in the fourth quarter Friday with visions of gold slipping away.
Swoopes, a two-time Most Valuable Player in the WNBA, had missed all five shots she'd taken at that point.
Or, as she put it: "I couldn't throw one into the Mediterranean, or whatever sea that is out there. I couldn't throw one in the Atlantic Ocean."
The United States has rolled over its competition up until now, but with less than four minutes left held only a two-point lead over Russia.
And, right about then, the basket started looking as big as the Aegean Sea to Swoopes.
She hit an outside jumper.
She grabbed a defensive rebound.
She came back and made another shot.
Meet Australia for gold
And, just like that, the U.S. women were back in control, holding on for a 66-62 victory. They'll meet Australia today in a rematch of the final game at Sydney in 2000 to try for their third straight gold medal.
"What a basketball game," U.S. coach Van Chancellor said. "And thank goodness for Sheryl Swoopes. Those were two big-time baskets. I knew she had to make those shots because she's already missed too darn many. I was playing the percentages."
The players insisted they hadn't taken Russia too lightly after going largely unchallenged in their earlier games.
"I think people expect the United States to dominate. People expect us t win by 30, 40 or even 50 points," Swoopes said. "But we knew it was going to be a battle."
Dawn Staley said that she expected Swoopes to come through in the clutch.
"She knew she had to step up," Staley said. "She knew she wasn't shooting well but she's not going to shy away from the big shot. I knew she was going to make a play, either score or make a play that leads to a score.
"Lisa [Leslie], Sheryl and I understand it. We do not want to be the team that does not get the gold and leaves that blemish on our team and our careers."
Played with Russians
Yolanda Griffith played with four of the Russians in the United States two years ago, so she was surprised at how competitive the game was.
"The rest of the world has gotten pretty close to our level of playing," she said. "We used to be up there when the other teams were just learning how to play basketball and now they have big players shooting three-pointers.
"We knew coming in that it was going to be a tough game. You can't believe that one game away from the gold medal you're going to blow the other team away that easily. We needed this game as a test. It woke us up and it was a challenge for what's still ahead.
"We didn't play to the fullest of our ability, but no matter how close the game got we always knew that something good was going to happen. So we weren't concerned."
Baranova questions refs
At least one of the Russian players, on the other hand, seemed to expect something bad to happen to them.
"We played very hard and we were very close in the end,' said forward Elena Baranova. "I have a couple questions for the referees, tough, and the [international basketball] organization.
"They changed everything for the USA. The colors of the uniform, the time of the game. People are changing rules for the USA. These are the Olympic Games and the rules must be the same for all the teams."