If day one is any indication, women’s basketball in the 2012 Olympics will be a great show.
About the only game that went as expected was Australia vs. overmatched Great Britain, but otherwise, from Croatia hanging with the U.S. for 30 minutes to Canada exposing Russia to China and France pulling upsets, it was a day for the unexpected – and a great appetizer for what looks like it will be a very entertaining two weeks of basketball.
Russia 58, Canada 53
The first time I saw Becky Hammon play was in a not-very crowded arena in Santa Clara, Calif., where she hit an all-but-impossible shot in the lane to win the game for Colorado State.
Since then, Hammon’s career has been a series of improbabilities, from her WNBA beginnings as an undrafted player who became an all-star, to her fast-tracked Russian citizenship – personally approved by Vladimir Putin, if the stories are to be believed – so she could push Russia to the medal stand in the Olympics.
And after the first game of the Olympics, add another all-but-impossible clutch performance to Hammon’s resume. She was simply spectacular in the last 4:22 as the Russians overcame a 10-point deficit to stave off Canada. Hammon assisted or scored on all but one of the Russian scores in a 12-1 run, including a how-did-she-do-that? lefthanded spinner off the glass to give them a 52-51 lead they never lost.
She finished with 14 points, despite missing all five of her trademark three-pointers, and aside from Elena Danilochkina’s 10, was the only double-figure scorer. Irina Osipova, though she scored just six, did have 12 rebounds and four blocks to make more than a token contribution to the victory.
Kim Smith hit five of seven three-pointers and scored 20 points to lead Canada, but her teammates combined to go just 10 of 43 from the field and no one had more than five rebounds.
The Russians jumped ahead early, 10-3, and seemed to be in control, even with Hammon on the bench, but then they went ice cold and the Canadians crawled back into the game. Miranda Ayim put the Canadians ahead 17-15 after one quarter, and after building a 12-point lead, they settled for a 30-24 edge at the break.
In the end, though, Hammon and a 44-33 rebounding edge proved to be just too much to overcome. And it’s even hard to tell if the close defeat was a positive for Canada, as it could be the North Americans blew their best chance at an upset with a fourth-quarter collapse, though optimists will say the game proved they can hang with the best of them in London, and now should be considered a medal threat.
As for Russia, Brazil is next, and even though the Eastern Europeans are traditionally slow starters – and have been known to sandbag in pool play – another desultory outing would not be a good sign for their medal hopes.
France 73, Brazil 58
For three quarters, this was a close, if not particularly well-played game. In the final 10 minutes, it was all France, though, and behind veteran guard Celine Dumerc, the Europeans coasted to a 15-point win.
In part, the path to the French victory, however, was paved by the Brazilians, who lived up to their reputation by hanging their heads when things weren’t going their way. They also seemed to forget that Erika de Souza is 6-6 and really, really good as she was not a factor down the stretch. De Souza finished with 17 points and Karla Costa had 13, but when it mattered most, neither were taking shots.
Meanwhile, Dumerc finished with 23 on eight-of-10 shooting and added five assists and four steals and Endene Miyem’s eight points and seven rebounds seemed to all come at critical times.
Of course, many will wonder if the presence of Iziane Castro Marques might have made a difference, but the French can point to Sandrine Gruda’s subpar performance (one for six from the field, three rebounds in 26 minutes).
The winners will need more from Gruda against Australia on Monday, but Brazil will need more from everyone against Russia – especially in the fourth quarter.
China 66, Czech Republic 57
It didn’t take long for the first upset to occur, as China shocked the favored Czechs in the first game of the tournament. Ma Zengyu was one of four double-figure scorers for the Chinese, who jumped out to a 12-point lead in the first half, allowed the Czechs to battle back to tie, and then pulled away.
Well, China pulled away for a while, building yet another 12-point lead, but again the Czechs came back to tie the score at 53. But 6-6 Chen Nan, playing with four fouls, came up big for the Chinese down the stretch, breaking the 53-53 tie, and blocking a key shot as the Eastern Europeans tried to come back.
Nan finished with 10 points, though it did take her 14 shots to get that total, but Ma had 16 points on five of six from the field (three of three from beyond the arc) to keep China humming while Nan and Miao Lijie struggled early. Miao got it going, though, finishing with 12 points and eight assists, and Chan had eight rebounds to go along with her 10 points.
The Czechs, though, couldn’t get much at all from their top players as Hana Horakova and Jana Vesela combined to go two of 14 from the field and scored just four points in 57 minutes. Eva Viteckova scored 14 and 22-year-old Katerina Elhotova had 13, but the Czechs looked nothing like the medal contender they were thought to be. They shot poorly, were outscored and outrebounded in the paint and turned the ball over 21 times, which opened the door for China, which had looked not that competitive in the runup to London.
After the torch was lit, however, the Chinese turned up the heat, and put themselves in position to advance to the quarterfinals with this surprisingly easy opening day win. The Czechs now must regroup, and quickly, as Turkey is next up. China gets Croatia, which will be another tough one, but with a key win in hand, there’s a little less pressure.
Australia 74, Great Britain 58
It was 11-11 with 2:50 to go in the first period – and then 9:45 later, when the hosts scored again, it was 29-11. In the meantime, the Opals showed their offensive versatility, defensive strength and international experience.
At the half, it was 39-26, and Lauren Jackson had 15 of her game-high 18 points, and despite some occasional moments that got the crowd excited, the outcome was never really in doubt. Jackson also helped push the game from physical to chippy with a couple well-aimed elbows, but in terms of basketball, the British (in a general way of speaking, given the international flavor of the roster) simply had no way to score against this kind of size.
And when it comes to size, 6-5 Suzie Batkovic finished with 12 points and seven rebounds for Australia, which was plus-10 on the boards. That said, though, the Opals turned the ball over 23 times, which would certainly have been a concern against stronger opposition.
As for Great Britain, coached by former Australia coach Tom Maher, Rachel Vanderwal and Jo Leedham had 11 points, but Leedham was four for 19 while Vanderwal was four for seven. Natalie Stafford got into double digits for the hosts as well with 10.
As for Australia, little was learned except that the Opals are as physical as ever, but at least they should be relatively fresh for France on Monday.
Turkey 72, Angola 50
The Olympics is a grind, with a game every other day, and managing minutes is one of the first jobs of any coach – so it’s not surprising that the Turks played everyone except Nilay Kartalpepe for more than 10 minutes, and even Kartalpepe logged 6:10.
And aside from the second quarter, it didn’t really matter who played for Turkey, as the athletic but barely organized and not that skilled Angolans simply couldn’t do enough consistently to make a game of it.
Tugba Palazoglu hit all three of her three-pointers en route to 13 points and Bahar Caglar hit all five of her shots and finished with 11 points to top Turkey’s scorers. American-born Quanitra Hollingsworth had 10 points before fouling out, and Saziye Ivegin matched that total.
Nacisella Mauricio had 11 for Angola, but the African champions had 22 turnovers to just five assists as they began to adjust to the Olympic level of play.