Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Greece's fans, not its team, Americans' biggest concern

Women's basketball

By Mike Prater
Gannett News Service

ATHENS - The United States women's basketball team has had its fun. Five easy wins in the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament. A team photo at the Acropolis. Shopping and sightseeing in Athens.

It's time to get serious.

The medal round starts today, and a U.S. squad that hasn't been challenged faces a stiff quarterfinal test against a surprising and popular Greece team.

"I really dread playing Greece. ... I hate to play a team here at home, I really do," coach Van Chancellor said.

It's not the team that scares him - the Greeks are in this tournament only because they are the host country, and they lost three of their five pool-play games.

The coach is worried about the hometown fans who have adopted this team. He's worried about a large crowd as the tournament moves from the Helliniko Indoor Center (12,000 seating capacity) to the larger Olympic Indoor Hall (14,536).

The Americans, the defending gold medalists, averaged 1,586 fans for the five pool-play games. The Greeks have been drawing 3,442, including 7,223 for Sunday's game against Japan. It was the largest crowd to ever watch a woman's basketball game in Greece.

The Greeks are coming in fired up.

"It will be a great experience for us," Greek point guard Anastasia Kostaki said. "The U.S. is the greatest power on the earth."

Greece coach Georgios Tsitskaris isn't intimidated.

"I know my team's capabilities and its limits. On Wednesday, against the U.S., we will go to play against a great team," he said. "They will play their game and we will play ours, but there's no way we are going there like lambs to be slaughtered," he said.

The Americans took two days off after finishing Group B play with a 5-0 record. They outscored opponents 430-285 and finished with a rebounding advantage of 229-117.

Center Lisa Leslie has been a force, averaging 17.8 points and 8.2 rebounds a game. Forwards Tina Thompson (12.2) and Sheryl Swoopes (10) also have been scoring in double figures.

Because of Leslie's presence, the Americans have been dominating in the paint, where they have outscored opponents 252-82. Greece has been outscored in the paint 174-170.

Greece's star player is offensive dynamo Evanthia Maltsi, who is averaging 20.4 points a game. She had a tournament-best 33 in Sunday's 93-91 victory over Japan that clinched a spot in the quarterfinals. The Greeks danced at midcourt and some players tossed their warmups and jerseys into the crowd.

"I think the atmosphere is going to be great, not only for Greece, but also for USA basketball," U.S. forward Yolanda Griffith said. "But we can't get too high or upset by the crowd. This is their home court, so we have to keep our momentum and not let the crowd get to us and just execute offensively like we're capable of doing."

The Americans, who have won 22 straight games in the Olympics since losing in the 1992 semifinals, will be without guard Katie Smith, who tore cartilage in her right knee during Sunday's 100-62 victory over China. Smith is done for the tournament and headed home for treatment.

No problem, says fellow guard Sue Bird.

"We are like a well-oiled machine," she said. "We keep going." We haven't played with each other all that much, prior to the Olympics. It's only natural that the more you play together, the better you are going to get and the more comfortable you are going to be with each other. We are really clicking."

Wednesday's winner advances to the Friday semifinals against the winner of the quarterfinal between Russia (4-1) and the Czech Republic (3-2). In the other half of the bracket, Spain (4-1) plays Brazil (3-2) and Australia (5-0) takes on New Zealand (2-3).

The gold medal game is Saturday, and signs are pointing toward a second straight Olympic final between the United States and Australia.

"I'd rather not discuss the final yet," Chancellor said. "I have to play Greece in front of 18,000 home fans, then the winner of Russia versus the Czech Republic. There's a lot of time left until we get there."

American might

The U.S. women's basketball team went 5-0 in pool play, outscoring the opposition 430-285. A look at its dominance:

• def. New Zealand 99-47

• def. Czech Republic 80-61

• def. Korea 80-57

• def. Spain 71-58

• def. China 100-62

Noteworthy: Center Lisa Leslie averages 17.8 points and 8.2 rebounds. Forwards Tina Thompson (12.2) and Sheryl Swoopes (10) also average double figures.

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