LONDON -- Don't let the 21-point final victory margin fool you. For 30 minutes, Croatia, making its Olympic debut in London this summer, gave Team USA as tough a test as any opponent the Americans have faced in recent memory. The trouble for the newcomers: A basketball game lasts 40 minutes, not 30.
The odd thing was that for the first eight of those 40 minutes, it looked like the United States was off to one of the many preliminary-round routs of an underdog opponent that have led too many to take a ho-hum attitude toward the success of the American women's team. By the time Croatia finally netted its first-ever Olympic bucket, only two minutes remained in the opening quarter. Up to that point, Croatia was 0-for-13 from the field, 0-for-6 from beyond the arc, and had racked up six turnovers -- seven if you count Andja Jelavic's unsportsmanlike foul (similar to a technical) that resulted not only in an award of two free throws to Lindsay Whalen but also in a surrender of posssession -- and the Americans were on top 9-0.
But despite their 9-0 romp through most of the opening quarter, there was trouble lurking just beneath the surface for the United States. Though strong defense was shutting down their underdog opponent, the Americans' own 36.4-percent field-goal shooting was rather uninspiring (several of the misses were layups and chippies) and was about to get much worse. The U.S. three-point game, rarely a strong-point, was nonexistent (0-for-2) up to that point, but the bigger problem was the Americans were even missing more than they were making at the free throw line.
A combination of three turnovers and an offensive foul in the first eight minutes, prevented the Americans from getting as many shots as they would have liked.
Worse yet for the U.S., once the Croatians finally figured out where the hoop was located, they discovered they liked it there, quite a bit, and returned to it regularly, causing the American lead to evaporate quickly. Over the last two minutes of the opening quarter, Croatia improved to two-of-five from the field, while Team USA connected on just one of their three final shots of the quarter. Meanwhile, the U.S. collected another turnover, as well as another offensive foul, to close out the quarter, up just 11-4.
The U.S. had lengthened that lead to 21-9 less than three minutes into the second period, as Tina Charles continued to pound away deep in the paint, while Lindsay Whalen penetrated to the hoop and Sue Bird struck from midrange. But Bird's jumper capped a 10-5 U.S. run over the first 2:45 of the second quarter, and as the Americans cooled off and continued to add to their collection of fouls and turnovers, Croatia heated up, putting together a 17-2 run of its own over the the next 4:25 minutes, fueled by a flurry of long balls from Jelena Ivezic, who had knocked down three of them to this point in the second period and would finish the game four-of-eight from beyond the arc, while her teammate Luca Ivankovic tacked on another three-ball during the Croatian surge.
And just that quickly, the would-be underdogs found themselves holding a three-point lead over the team FIBA rates as No. 1 in the world.
Diana Taurasi put the U.S. back on top with back-to-back threes, both off assists from Bird, while Candace Parker knocked down a mid-range jumper, enabling Team USA to close out the half, clinging to a slight, 31-28, lead.
But when the No. 1 team in the world, and four-time defending Olympic gold-medalist, goes half the distance against FIBA's No. 31 team, an Olympic novice, and leads by just three, guess which locker room the halftime celebrations were being held in? On one level, Croatia had already won, regardless what the numbers on the scoreboard might turn out to be by game's end. They'd delivered a message that here was a player that could go toe-to-toe with the world's women's basketball superpower and come out still standing. It was one thing for Croatia, a country with only 4,500,000 residents ("I bet they have four million just women's basketball players," said Croatia's Ana Lelas of the United States) to have received its first berth in the Olympics, but the Croatians had now proven "we deserve to be here," said explained Croatia's Ana Lelas, who finished the game with just two points but yanked down five rebounds and dished out five assists, with transparent pride.
"I said I wanted to be here and start with the U.S. in the first game," explained Lelas, who called the way the game played out "amazing."
"Early in the first quarter," she noted, "both teams were struggling, missing easy layups and shots. I was struggling. Maybe [we] get used to it. It's the first game. Afterwards, we played much smarter, passed the ball with confidence. I think we showed we can play with the best team in the world. We just have to play teams which we have a better chance of beating.
"We didn't give up. They are the best team in the world. There is nothing left to say," added Lelas who told Full Court repeatedly how "honored" she and her teammates were to have had a chance to take the floor against the American WNBA stars.
Less than a week ago, the U.S. team had come out on fire, ultimately crushing Croatia, 109-55, in its first and only meeting with today's opponent, an exhibition match in Turkey. But on the first day of the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. offense was plainly sputtering, while the Croats were steadily building confidence as they began to find their range from downtown.
Still, Team USA had never been deceived by the apparent ease of last week's exhibition rout. U.S. assistant coach (and DePaul University head coach) Doug Bruno had shared his scouting report on Friday and unlike those who rely solely on rankings and records, he knew Croatia would be better this time around.
"First of all, [6-6 Croatian center] Maija Vrsaljko is an exceptional post player that was getting married the day we played them last time, so they are going to have a much better post presence than they did last time," Bruno said. "Also, the last time we played, while the score was a 50-point blowout, Croatia played much better in the second half. I think in the second half they really showed the capabilities they have as a basketball team. Andja Jelavic is a very, very talented lead guard, [Croatian team captain] Sandra Mandir is a great scoring guard and Ana Lelas is also an exceptional three-spot player that has an exceptional intermediate game. So this team has four different people that can really hurt you."
"Every game has a life of its own," Bruno said. "We have to take the good, the bad and the ugly from our first game, even though it was a 50-point win, and we have to prepare for this game as if it's the only game we are going to play in this tournament. We expect them to be much better."
That expectation, combined with the experience level of even the U.S. team's Olympic rookies when it comes to pressure-cooker situations at the highest levels of professional and collegiate play, meant that the Americans did not panic when they found themselves off to a rocky start and their opponent taking every advantage of it.
The keys to the game in Bruno's estimatation were:
First, "come into the game ready to play, with intensity, energy and focus, using defense to take Croatia out of its flow" -- and do so from the get-go. "It was ... very important that we took them out early [in the exhibition victory," said Bruno. "By taking them out early, we made it very comfortable for ourselves offensively."
Second, "execute offensively. That was excellent the first time around, and it has to be excellent again," said Bruno. "I think we can do a better job of creating open-court opportunities. So, defend, execute on the offensive side and create shots from transition."
To this point, Team USA would have to receive mixed marks on executing its game plan. On the one hand, the U.S. had established an early lead, but it was nowhere near the cushion they had to have hoped for, and they frittered it away pretty early as well. As for energy, attention and focus, that was a mixed bag as well. Charles was already having one of her better games since this team was assembled; Taurasi wasn't exactly on fire, but she was still doing what she does; and Bird was a regular dish-meister, but many of their teammates seemed to a bit distracted and fatigued. Give them a "C" on this criterion over the first half.
As to its offense, the Americans were often taking shots in the open court, but by early in the second period, they weren't creating that many scoring opportunities, and when they did create them, they failed to exploit them. Give this one a D-minus in the first half -- at least if you're measuring by the high standards to which the U.S. holds itself.
"We had an opportunity in the beginning of the game, when Croatia had a tough time scoring, to build up a big lead," said head U.S. Olympic Women's Basketball Team and Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma. "We didn't take advantage of that and, like any good team, Croatia came back at us and ended up taking the lead against us. That's to be expected in these games. It didn't surprise us."
Fatigue might well have been an issue, said Auriemma. As one of the last of the world's nations -- alphabetically, which is how the sequence of the Athletes' Parade is organized under the Olympic charter -- the Americans had survived a long night on Friday, spending so much time waiting around in the tunnel for its turn to enter the arena that Auriemma even decided to sit former Husky Asjha Jones, who had missed some of the Americans' preparatory games due to a foot inury, out of Team USA's 2012 Olympic opener. For security and training reasons, the United States does not reside in the Olympic Village, which at these Games is immediately adjacent to the Olympic Park and only a short walk to the stadium where the Opening and Closing Ceremonies are held. Instead, the Americans have set up headquarters on the campus of a London-area university roughly 40 minutes away and travel by bus through extraordinarily heavy traffic in what, even in non-Olympic times, is one of the world's busiest cities. So as not to chance being late for their 9:15 p.m. call time to line up with the world's other nations, the Americans left their campus at around 5 p.m. Friday evening, said a team spokesperson, and after standing outside, then in the tunnels of, and finally, after their parade around the track, on the floor of the stadium from their arrival until well after 1 a.m., they didn't make it back to their quarters until nearly three in the morning.
No one was whining or making excuses -- that's simply the way the ceremonies work out no matter where they are held. And no one we talked to would have missed the thrilling and memorable experience for the world. But the players could certainly be forgiven for a somewhat lackluster beginning under circumstances that had led teams with earlier start times either to leave as soon as they'd completed their circuit of the track or else to skip the event altogether.
Then there was the matter of nerves, which Auriemma felt might have affected a few of the Team's Olympic first-timers. Team co-captain Sue Bird at first rejected that hypothesis, then back-tracked a bit. "To be honest I don't think any of us were nervous, or worried necessarily, because because we knew we weren't playing that well. But you know now the jitters are out. Sometimes there's a little jitters there, so we've got to ship those out and move on."
Tamika Catchings, an indefatigable defender and one of Bird's two co-captains, the second being Taurasi, thought their first-half problems might have stemmed not from fatigue or from nerves, but from the players' excitement about the previous night's opening. "I have to say we were still focused on last night's Opening Ceremony, and it was hard to focus in the beginning, until we relaxed and started making the open layups and open shots."
And Candace Parker, who has one previous Olympic and one World Championship gold to her credit, may have given the best answer. "In the first quarter, we did a great defensive job, but we couldn't score the ball. I couldn't say why, but I hope we improve that for the next game. We didn't have a lot of time to practice, so the first games are always a little bit slow. Then we just start scoring and played our usual game."
Whatever the explanation for their first-half woes, Team USA turned things around in the second half. But though their intensity picked up a bit out of the locker room, the effect was not immediately evident on the scoreboard. Croatia continued to give as good as it got over the first six minutes of the third quarter, as the Eastern Europeans found an answer each time the U.S. seemed to be picking up steam, briefly tying the score on a Lelas fast-break jumper at the 5:51 mark and thrice closing to within a single point.
The Americans seemed to be gaining traction in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, when the entrance of Angel McCoughtry helped the U.S. run its lead up to seven points (51-44), but even then Vrsaljko converted a traditional three-point play to bring Croatia within four points of the Americans (51-47) with under a minute to go in the third. But Seimone Augustus closed out the final seconds of the period by putting up a short jumper that missed its mark, then grabbing her own rebound and putting it back to make it 53-47 as the game entered its final stanza.
By that point, it was Croatia that seemed to be running on empty, just as the U.S. began to make its move. Over the next five minutes, the Americans exploded with a 17-5 run for which McCoughtry, despite several turnovers, deserves a major share of the credit. After starting the quarter with a bad pass that Vrsaljko turned into a fast-break layup after a Lelas assist, McCoughtry quickly redeemed herself, grabbing the offensive board from an Augustus miss and launching her own personal 6-0 run to put the U.S. up, 57-49, in a span of just 15 seconds.
Swin Cash picked up where McCoughtry left off, grabbing the offensive board from another Augustus miss, and putting it back to give the Americans their first double-digit lead of the game, 59-49, with 8:26 remaining. Fouled on the putback, Cash converted the traditional three-point play, and then it was all hands on deck for the U.S. as the Americans transition game revved into full swing.
As usual, the offensive turnaround started with the defense for the Americans. Here again, much of the credit goes to McCoughtry and the rest of the U.S. bench, which Auriemma deployed as a defensive SWAT team: harrying, trapping, pressure defenders. The U.S. held Croatia to only nine points in the game's last 10 minutes.
As Catchings explained, "When our offense doesn't work, our defense is there to help us. We have 12 offensive players that can score and have to share the ball. When we defend as we did in the last quarter, we're going to be cool."
In the end, Team USA's strong fourth-quarter finish not only secured the win, but a win by a sufficient margin to place them at the top of the Group A pool after the first day of Olympic play -- which has to earn them at least an A- as they begin their quest for a fifth consecutive Olympic gold. The outing might not have been all that was expected of them, or all they had hoped for themselves, but it was more than enough to get the job done, and were we grading on the curve, it would have to be an A+.
Croatia deserves high marks as well, despite a slow start and a spent finish. Despite being outscored by a margin of 28-9 in the final quarter, Croatian coach Stipe Bralic was justifiably proud of his team's Olympic debut. "We couldn't keep their rhythm with only seven or eight players we have to compete. They are probably the best team ever, so sooner or later, they will beat you."
Pointing out his squad's "smart" use of its pick-and-roll strategy during its runs in the second and third quarters, Stipe added, "It was an excellent game. We were playing against the best team and we were close for more than 30 minutes."
Ivezic finished with a game-high 22 points for Croatia, playing all but 10 seconds of the game, despite four fouls. Vrsaljko was hot on her heels with 19 points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Every American who took the court scored in the U.S. 2012 Olympic opener and everyone pulled down at least one rebound in a game in which Team USA controlled the glass to the tune of 57-32. Two U.S. players finished with double-doubles, as Charles posted 14 points and 10 rebounds to go with two assists and two blocks, and Parker logged 11 points, a game-high 13 rebounds, two swats and a dish. Two other Americans -- McCoughtry who put up 13 points, while grabbing three boards and three steals and even adding a block, and Catchings, who did a bit of everything with 10 points, five rebounds, two assists, and two steals, while drawing five fouls against her -- joined Parker and Charles in the double-figure scoring column.
The next test for the United States comes in Monday's nightcap, at 10:15 p.m. local, 5:15 EDT, against Angola, which showed great heart despite falling to Turkey, 72-50, on Saturday. That game is likely to feel like a light warm-up scrimmage for the Americans, though Auriemma and his crew are not taking any team in this competition for granted.
Croatia gets the early wake-up call, tipping off at 9 a.m. Monday against China, which surprised many on Saturday by knocking off favored Czech Republic -- the runnerup in 2010's Women's Work Basketball Championship -- 66-57. That game was a close one much of the way, and Monday's match seems likely to follow a similar course.
- China, France surprise on an interesting first day in London
- London 2012: The United States -- Only gold will satisfy