It’s the same old song, Australia vs. Team USA going head-to-head in international competition with medals on the line – only this time, it’s in the semifinals rather than the finals. Still, the stakes are just as high and the competition will be just as fierce.
Granted, Australia lost a game to France, and struggled before putting a Chinese team away that the Americans pummeled, but all that matters is the 40 minutes coming up Thursday. Australian coach Carrie Graf has major weapons up front, and since she’s had her team together since the European season ended, she might have some surprises for the Americans – Suzy Batkovic, Lauren Jackson and Liz Cambage all playing at the same time, lined up in a 2-3 zone, just to name one example.
Geno Auriemma can counter with a roster that goes 10 deep with incredible talent, and even the bottom two are awfully good, plus an aura of invincibility that has been bolstered through decades of domination.
Though a lot of things have to go right for the Australians to pull off the upset, it’s not out of the realm of possibility – and since this is realistically the Opals’ last best chance to beat Team USA after years of coming up short, expect a complete, all-out effort from Australia in front of a full house of fans who will be cheering against America.
Point guard: With all the starpower assembled for this game, the single most important player might well be a 5-4 37-year-old who averaged 3.6 points in 189 WNBA games. Yes, Kristi Harrower is the key, because if the Australians can’t get the ball upcourt and into the hands of their big (or at least tall) three, it won’t matter how much power the Opals have in the paint. Of course, though there’s no doubt that in a seven-game series, or a WNBA season, that Harrower would be outplayed by Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen, Harrower only needs to bring the magic for one game, for about 28 minutes, and she can give the Opals a shot at a monster upset. Though she’s never really been a scorer, she did get 20 in a WNBA game back in 1999, and she’s a steady, heady leader who isn’t going to buckle to Olympic pressure.
Behind her, though, is Samantha Richards, who isn’t nearly the scorer Harrower is (a scary thought, that), and who doesn’t have the same kind of experience. She has done well handling the ball, however – 17 assists and eight turnovers – and she leads the team in steals. It’s conceivable Richards could play a big role, but it’s much more likely that the Opals will go as far as Harrower can carry them.
On the flip side, the pressure on Bird and Whalen is much, much less. Bird, in fact, has scored just 25 points in the entire Olympics (she’s played more minutes than anyone else as well), and is only five of 18 from three-point distance. Of course, Whalen is shooting a phenomenal 62 percent, and the two have combined for 47 assists to just 17 turnovers.
The only reason to expect either to struggle would be against quicker, taller guards, and Australia, unfortunately, doesn’t have any. And since both Bird and Whalen are bigger and quicker than Harrower, even their perceived defensive weaknesses are unlikely to be a major factor.
In short, advantage USA.
Shooting guard: Jenny Screen starts for the Opals, apparently for much the same reason Candace Parker doesn’t start for the United States: The move allows Carrie Graf to bring in a scorer with her first substitution. Screen, on the other hand, has taken just nine shots in 106 minutes (making two), and since one of the necessities to have a chance to beat Team USA is to score a lot of points, expect Jenna O’Hea to play a lot of minutes.
Though O’Hea is just two of 14 from beyond the arc in these Olympics, she’s an accomplished three-point shooter and a very solid player. She shot 44 percent for the L.A. Sparks from three-point distance last year and had a 40/26 A/TO. She’s played with and against all the Americans, and like Harrower, will not be intimidated.
She will not, however, be as good as Diana Taurasi, who’s shooting 62 percent in the Olympics, and is arguably one of the three best players in the world. And when Taurasi goes out, usually Angel McCoughtry comes in, and McCoughtry is shooting 74 percent and has scored 76 points in just 100 minutes of court time. McCoughtry also leads the Americans in offensive rebounds and steals, and in addition, has blocked five shots.
O’Hea’s pretty good, but she’s not in the same class as Taurasi and McCoughtry. Another advantage USA.
Small forward: Maya Moore is just a very good basketball player. There’s nothing she doesn’t do well – though nitpickers say she should draw more fouls – and she can score, rebound and defend at elite world-class levels. Belinda Snell, on the other hand, does one thing very well (shoot the ball) and everything else pretty much average. Snell also comes with a word of caution, as she’s just three of 20 from two-point distance, and though Rachel Jarry, her backup, has shot well, she doesn’t handle pressure, and that could turn out to be a major factor.
Oh, and Team USA’s backup? Just Seimone Augustus, one of the premier players in the world who’s shooting 46 percent from the field and has just 11 fewer points than Moore in the same number of minutes.
Once again, advantage USA.
Power forward: By starting Moore, coach Geno Auriemma has shoved Tamika Catchings to the four, and against Australia, that means she’s guarding Lauren Jackson, who is four inches taller and not long ago was the consensus choice as the best player in the world.
Jackson is 31 now, though, and has lost some quickness, so she’s merely great instead of out of this world, but even so, she’s a problem for Catchings. Then again, Catchings’ defensive intensity will bother LJ, and if, as above, the guards can’t get the ball to Jackson, that four-inch height advantage won’t mean a thing.
Then again, when Candace Parker comes in to play the four, the height advantage won’t be an issue – though of course Parker’s devotion to defense is sporadic at best and she too will struggle to contain Jackson.
Graf’s minutes’ management should pay off in this one, as LJ has played just over 24 minutes a game so far, and should be fresh enough to go 32 or more Thursday. If she does, advantage Australia.
Center: Liz Cambage is 6-8. Tina Charles is maybe 6-3, and struggled a bit against 6-6 Krista Phillips in the quarterfinals against Canada. Sylvia Fowles is 6-5, but she’s been bothered by a foot injury and has only played 27 minutes in London, so Cambage is going to present a problem for Team USA.
The 20-year-old looks much better than she did with the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock last year, and has had her way in the paint against every opponent (60 percent shooting, 11 blocked shots). If she gets the ball with one foot in the newly rectangular lane, she’s going to be a very tough cover for the U.S. – and note that she’s converting 85 percent of her free throws.
She too is well rested, and looks to be in good enough shape to, like Jackson, give Australia 32+ minutes. If not, Graf will have to fall back on veteran Suzy Batkovic, who is rebounding well but shooting just 39 percent and has a team-high 15 turnovers. Still, Batkovic is 6-5 and a strong veteran, so she, like Harrower, is certainly capable of rising to the occasion and delivering a big game when the Opals need it most.
Jackson can slide down to the five as well, and Abby Bishop has WNBA experience, so the Australian frontcourt rotation is very well stocked. For the second time, advantage Australia.
Coaching: Geno Auriemma has the Americans defending, playing hard and playing together, which is all you can ask of a coach that has had very limited practice time. Carrie Graf, on the other hand, hasn’t looked nearly as in control as Auriemma, though that is in great part due to the fact that her players aren’t as good as his. Still, advantage America.
Intangibles: The plucky underdog role suits the Australians very well, and they have the firepower to score when needed. The crowd will be behind them as well, and Team USA is such a prohibitive favorite the Americans are likely to be playing not to lose – and that could open the door for the Opals. Slight advantage to Australia.
In conclusion: The six categories split three and three, which would seem to make this a close game, but Australia’s biggest edge so far has been its depth, which is completely negated by Team USA’s roster of superstars. Swin Cash and Asjha Jones, who will play little if at all in a close game, would both get major minutes for the Opals, and Candace Parker and Seimone Augustus, American bench players, would be stars for the Australians. So even though this game looks like it’s even, it’s not as close as it seems. If the two teams played ten times, Team USA would win seven or eight – so the Opals have to hope this is one of the outlying two or three.
Team USA by 12.
- London 2012: Australia -- Can team training offset the loss of Penny Taylor?
- Cambage dunk makes Olympic history as Australia edges Russia, 70-66