There was a lot of talk about how the Russians really didn’t care about the last pool play game against France, and basically gave the game away so they could avoid playing Team USA in the semifinals – and there doesn’t seem much doubt about it being true.
But it’s not like the French were knocking themselves out to win. Consider that all 12 players on the French roster played at least 12 minutes, and that Sandrine Gruda played the most minutes at 24. In fact, only she and Celine Dumerc cracked the 20-minute mark, as coach Pierre Vincent was clearly playing with the knockout round in mind.
And of course neither coach gave anything away strategically, knowing full well this semi-final matchup was a very real possibility.
So what we have is two very good teams with long traditions in women’s basketball going head-to-head for a shot at gold. There’s no sandbagging now – and we’ll see the whole playbook, not to mention all the players, from both.
Point guard: Celine Dumerc and Becky Hammon have each played 163 minutes so far in these Olympics, and statistically, the verdict is clear: Dumerc has been more effective. She has scored more points, shot much better and gotten to the line much more often. True, she has two fewer assists, but she has one less turnover and three more steals.
But who would bet against Hammon in a game of this magnitude? Like Dumerc, she has come up huge when the Russians have needed her most, just as Dumerc has for France, so for this game, for these 40 minutes, the numbers don’t really tell the tale. And remember, the Russians tanked in the game against France to avoid getting on the same side of the bracket as Team USA, and in that one, Hammon was just one of five from the field and had two assists and four turnovers.
France might be a little better equipped to function offensively when the top point guard is off the court, as Edwige Lawson-Wade is an experienced veteran, but her A/TO is just 10/9. Alena Danilochkina is more or less the backup for Hammon, and though she has handled the ball well, she is clearly more of a shooting guard.
This matchup, given Dumerc’s sterling play, is just about as even as even can get.
Shooting guard: Alena Danilochkina has shot a dismal 21 percent from two-point range, and has just seven rebounds in 141 minutes (which isn’t many for a six-footer), but she is a good defender and has been steady from three-point distance. Still, like Hammon, she needs to turn it up a notch or two against France, or Emilie Gomis is liable to be the difference-maker. Gomis is the second-leading scorer for her side, and is shooting 55 percent from the field, so she definitely has some positives. On the other hand, she has four assists to 13 turnovers – contrast that to Danilochkina’s 16 to 10 – so it’s not as if she’s playing perfectly.
On top of that, Vincent often uses Lawson-Wade at the two, sliding Gomis to the three in a smaller, effective lineup, and the obvious Russian counter of veteran Ilona Korstin hasn’t happened much, as she’s only played 51 relatively unproductive minutes.
And Danilochkina has done less in more minutes, so advantage France.
Small forward: Sandrine Gruda is probably more a four than a three, but the French have gone unbeaten in London by relying on size – so Gruda has spent a fair amount of time as a small forward. She’s certainly athletic enough to guard most threes at the Olympics, and Russia is no exception. Still, Evgeniya Belyakova is a three-point specialist (she’s 11 of 22 from beyond the arc and eight of 23 from within) and she’ll draw Gruda away from the basket, where the Frenchwoman is most effective.
That said, Gruda will find a way to get her blocked shots (she has 14 so far), and she’ll still score and rebound. Belyakova and her backups won’t be nearly as productive, even if Gomis winds up playing a lot of time in this spot. Advantage France.
Power forward: The French have been overpowering inside, in great part thanks to Isabelle Yacoubou – and it’s not because of her red, white and blue hairdo. Yacoubou puts the power in power forward, as she uses her strength, height and size to great advantage in the paint. (And when she’s not at the four, Gruda is, so there’s clearly no dropoff.)
In years past, that would have been no problem for Russia, which has been known for decades for its bruising inside play. But starter Olga Arteshina averages only 3.6 rebounds a game and primary reserve Anna Petrakova is the modern stretch four, and has taken more threes than twos. But coach Boris Sokolovsky can mix and match at the four/five, as he can move Irina Osipova to that spot and insert 6-6 youngster Natalia Vieru or sometimes starter Natalia Vodopyanova into the lineup.
Still, none deliver as much as the Yacoubou/Gruda combination, so here’s another advantage France.
Center: Emelline Ndongue and Endene Miyem give the French depth and athleticism up front, and the combination allows Vincent to not worry too much about foul trouble. Neither player is spectacular, but given the talent around them, they don’t have to be. And if Yacoubou slides to the five, that’s not an issue either.
Russia counters with veteran Irina Osipova, who not only is an excellent scorer inside, but also a superb passer. Her behind-the-back assist against Turkey was just one of her 17 in London, against nine turnovers. She also has seven steals and eight blocks, and has drawn 23 fouls. Vieru and 6-5 Marina Kuzina are also available, but for the Russians to win, they need Osipova on the floor.
Coaching: These are two well-coached teams with a clear understanding of what they want to do, and how best to do it. France has played closer games than it seems it should have, but the Russians have also seemed less than the sum of their parts at times. We’ll know a lot more after this game. Even.
Intangibles: The British crowd will be torn: They always root against the French, but it’s hard to cheer for a Russian team that admits it didn’t give its best in pool play. Both teams are spotted with veterans who know this is their last chance, and both teams have shown the ability to fight through adversity. Even.
In conclusion: Not that much is revealed by breaking down the categories, as three of the six come out even, but the other four go 3-1 France. Is that enough to make a definitive call? Not really, but the fact that one of the point guards doesn’t speak the same language as the rest of her teammates could be enough to tip the scales late.
France by four.
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