Friday, August 27, 2004

Pressure builds as team faces Russia

By Mike Prater
Gannett News Service

ATHENS - Pressure is mounting for the United States women's basketball team, but it isn't coming from their opponents in the Olympic tournament.

Going into today's semifinal showdown with Russia, the Americans have won their first six games by an average of 29.2 points.

The Russians provide the biggest test so far, but the pressure that's starting to hit the Americans is coming from another direction. Other U.S. women's teams are one of the success stories of Athens. The softball and soccer teams and the beach volleyball tandem of Misty May and Kerri Walsh have gold, and the gymnastics team has silver.

The basketball team would be disappointed not to win a gold medal, which will be decided Saturday between the U.S.-Russia winner and the Australia-Brazil semifinal winner.

Starting with the Summer Games in Atlanta, the success of women's Olympic sports teams in soccer, softball and basketball have motivated a new generation of female athletes in the U.S. Guard Sue Bird said her teammates are aware of the impact they can have by winning gold.

"Little girls can now have their pick of what they want to do. They have Kerri Walsh (beach volleyball), Mia Hamm (soccer), Jennie Finch (softball), you name it, Lisa Leslie (women's basketball), they can look up to these players and pick and choose," she said.

"Growing up, even for me, I would never had thought to play beach volleyball, softball. I wasn't into it, so it's great little girls can have people to look up to and have their choice of things to do."

Leslie said the women's U.S. teams are supportive of each other. The soccer and volleyball teams watched in person as the basketball team won gold in 1996 and 2000.

"Our battles are all the same. We respect each other and we all battle to get our little place," Leslie said. "Something like softball getting the gold medal is great for all women's sports."

Now it's the basketball team's turn, starting today against a physical Russian squad that lost to the Americans in Sydney and in the gold-medal game of the 2003 world championships.

"There is definitely no love lost between us and Russia," forward Swin Cash said.

"They're saying that this is going to be their year, they're going to knock us off, and it's going to be a challenge. It's going to be tough for 40 minutes," forward Sheryl Swoopes said.

The Russians, whose only loss has been to undefeated Australia, have a strong inside game that could challenge Leslie. She has been dominant inside the paint, averaging 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds a game.

The Russians counter with WNBA player Elena Baranova, a 6-foot-4 forward who is averaging 8.3 rebounds, and powerful 6-foot-8 center Maria Stepanova. With those two pounding away inside, the Russians have been holding opponents to 36 percent field-goal shooting.

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