LONDON -- There was controversy and a couple close games during the third round of women's basketball in the 2012 Olympics, but with just two days of pool play remaining, the shape of the single-elimination, eight-team bracket that will determine the gold-medal winner is starting to take shape.
In Group A, the United States and China are both 3-0, and assured of advancement, while Turkey and the Czech Republic look like they both will go through as well. Group B is a bit more complex. France and Russia and Australia all seem assured of playing for a medal, while Brazil and Canada will meet Friday in the game that will likely decide the final qualifier.
Australia 67, Brazil 61
In a classic the-game-wasn't-as-close-as-the-score-indicated, Australia went to 2-1 in Group B play with a 67-61 win over Brazil. The key was inside dominace, as 6-5 Lauren Jackson scored 18 points and had eight rebounds, 6-8 Liz Cambage had 17 points and 10 rebounds and 6-5 Suzie Batkovic had 11 points and six rebounds -- while at the same time Brazil's outstanding post, Erika de Souza, fouled out in fewer than 20 minutes with 11 points and two rebounds.
Karla Costa kept the game interesting almost singlehandedly, scoring 22 points on eight of 14 shooting (four of eight from beyond the arc), and Cintia Santos had 10 points in her fourl-limited time on the court.
The story, though, was rebounds (Australia 50-40) and points in the paint (Australia 40-24), and though Brazil got within five points on several occasions in the fourth quarter, the South Americans never were close enough to threaten to take the lead. The loss dropped them to 0-3, making Friday's game against Canada a must-win if they are to advance to the quarterfinals. Even then, it's not assured, as the Brazilians must then get by the gritty Britons Sunday even if they defeat Canada.
Australia needs to beat Russia or Canada to move on, and will also be looking for Lauren Jackson to pass Janeth Arcain as the all-time leading scorer in Olympic women's basketball.
Czech Republic 89, Croatia 70
After a close game for the first 30 minutes, by their own admission the Croatian defense disintegrated in the final period, allowing the Czech offense to take off like a rocket.
Croatia entered the fourth quarter up by just three points, 60-57, but over the next five minutes, the Czechs outscored them 18-4. The rout continued into the game's final minutes, as three-balls followed jumpers, occasionally interspersed with a foul shot or driving lay-up, all ripping through the Czech nets, while at the opposite end of the floor, the Czechs exploited their dominance on the boards to ensure that more often than not, Croatia was one and done.
So with 1.6 seconds left in the game, the score stood at 89-70 in favor of the Czechs, when Croatia's Anna Lelas turned the ball over on a traveling violation. But instead of simply inbounding and allowing time to expire, Czech coach Lubor Blazek called time out, and the television cameras that are ubiquitous in Olympic arenas showed him in the huddle drawing up a final play.
FIBA had an immediate -- and harshly negative -- reaction to that bit of strategy, which is why Blazek seemed strangely subdued as he took his seat in the post-game press conference to discuss his team's first victory in these Olympic Games. His joy at the victory had been turned to sadness, Blazek explained, when he was accused by a FIBA official of having taken the time out in an effort to humiliate his opponent. That was never his intention, Blazek said, as he had only respect for the Croatian team, which the Czechs meet often in European competition.
Why then was it important enough for Blazek to call time out in that final second, his team already up by 19, to draw up one last three-point play for Katerina Elhotova who already had 20 points to her credit? It's because of FIBA's own system of resolving ties between teams in line to advance into the quarterfinals.
Right now, China sits atop the Pool A standings at 3-0, its place in the quarterfinals secure. The United States has joined China at 3-0 to nail down its spot in the quarters, and take either the No. 1 or 2 spot in the Pool A standings. Turkey is now 2-1, needing at least one more win out of the two remaining preliminary-round games in order to be assured of advancement.
After tonight's game, the Czechs sit in fourth place at 1-2, with Croatia and Angola tied at the bottom of the barrel at 0-3. It is mathematically possible for multiple combinations of Turkey, Czech Republic, Croatia and even Angola to finish the remainder of their schedules at 2-1 or at 1-2. If so, how would the third and fourth teams to emerge from the group be decided and who gets to watch the rest of the competition from the sidelines? If the tie is between just two teams, FIBA looks first to head-to-head results, with the winner of the round-robin match between the two teams advancing. But in case of a multi-team deadlock, the tiebreaker consists of the difference between the cumulative points the team has scored and the cumulative points that have been scored against it in the preliminary rounds, or the point spread.
"We needed to win the highest score because we didn't know who is ahead of us," said Blazek, describing his reaction to FIBA's accusation of unsportsmanlike conduct as "the worst feeling that I have ever had" and insisting that he would never intentionally act for the purpose of humiliating his adversary.
Blazek identified the FIBA official only as a "top manager," but declined to provide a name, saying he didn't not want to make a bigger issue of the incident. For his part, Croatian coach said he had not felt his team was being humilitated and that the final timeout was "not important in the game."
In the early hours of the following morning, we spoke with Patrick Koller, FIBA's director of communications, who was unaware of the incident and of Blazek's comments, but said he would look into the matter. He did note that FIBA's concerns about the humiliation of opponents were aroused after an incident at the men's qualifying tournament in Caracas when the Lithuanian men's team, apparently still resentful that their country's bid to host the event had been rejected in favor of Venezuela's, called for time, leading 100-80 and only 4.7 seconds to play, creating such an adverse crowd reaction there were fears of a riot.
Still, said Koller, he did not know what penalty could even be applied to a team in a situation such as that of Lithuania or Czech Republic, so it was unlikely any further action would be taken.
Nobody likes a showoff and piling on the points against a weaker adversary for the sheer sake of one-upsmanship should certainly be discouraged. But if FIBA has opted to use the point spread as a tiebreaker that will determine a team's fate in the Games, how can it fault a competitor that is unsure of its ultimate status for accumulating as many points as possible? Does sportsmanship require Blazek to run the risk that his team will be sent home empty-handed because he miscalculated how many points would be needed to move on and fell short by two or three points? If FIBA doesn't want teams to pile up as many points as possible, perhaps it should turn instead to a coin toss as a tiebreaker.
FIBA's warning to Blazek seems all the more ironic in light of the disqualification today of four women's badminton doubles teams for failing to to "use their best efforts to win" in their pool play matches on Tuesday after having already accumulated sufficient wins to qualify for the Olympic quarterfinals in their event. The top-seeded team from China, two teams from Korea, and one from Korea were all charged with having deliberately attempted to lose their matches against one another Tuesday in an apparent effort, in the case of the Koreans, to avoid having to face one another before the finals in the knockout rounds and, in the case of the Chinese and Indonesians, to position themselves to face a weaker opponent in the knockouts. The players repeatedly served into the nets and tapped the birdie out of bounds with such incredible consistency that for teams at this elite level that both the jeering crowds and the officials on the playing courts concluded they were deliberating attempting to lose their matches "conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport," thereby violating the Olympic spirit. After a hearing and rejection of their appeals by the World Badminton Federation, all four teams were disqualified from these Olympic Games and the four next highest duos from each of their groups will play in the quarterfinals.
Several of the basketball players interviewed were unaware of the badminton incident, their attention focused on reaching the quarterfinals in their own event. While America's Angel McCoughtry said she felt every Olympic athlete "should always do their best, especially for the youth, as role models," her teammate Diana Taurasi questioned whether the principle of penalizing athletes for "failing to use their best efforts" could or should be applied to basketball or other sports. Runners and swimmers don't always go full out in an early heat, Taurasi pointed out, doing just enough to qualify to advance while saving energy for later rounds. In the same way, a basketball team that has already qualified to advance might decide to rest its best players to avoid injury or fatigue.
Australian coach Carrie Graf asked after the Opals' loss to France on Monday, whether she might consider intentionally allowing her team to suffer another one if it would allow them to avoid meeting the Americans util later in the crossovers, seemed stunned by the question. For one thing, it's difficult to see how that tactic would work in basketball, unless she were to know in advance that the U.S. were also going to lose another round and fall out of the top position in Group A. Gathering herself, Graf responded that such a tactic would be "un-Australian," and that her focus and that of her team was on picking up wins, one game at a time.
Still, FIBA's reprimand to Blazek sets up the anomoly of having some competitors others rebuked for trying too hard while others are penalized for not trying hard enough.
During the game, Jana Vesela (12 points) and Hana Horakova (11) joined Elhotova in double figures for the Czech Republic, while Sandr Mandir had 20 and Ana Lelas 15 for the Croats, who expected much more of their trip to London than to lose their first three games.
France 64, Canada 60
France picked up its third win in a row by dropping Canada 64-60. The victory did not come easily as Canada gave France, a team ranked No. 8 in the world by FIBA, an intense workout from opening tip to final buzzer.
France led most of the way, but never by more than seven points in a game that saw four ties and eight lead changes. Canada matched the taller French squad point-for-point in the paint, and outrebounded its adversary by a 40-36 margin. Canada's superior offensive rebounding (19-9) against a taller opponent resulted in a 22-10 advantage in second-chance points, helping to keep the margin narrow.
Early on Canada suffered from poor shooting only connecting on 29 percent of their attempts, which improved, to 35 percent by the end of the game. However they went 0-11 from behind the arc, which was even worse than France going 0-5 from three-point range; closer to the basket, the French knocked down better than 50 percent of their shot attempts.
For the second time in as many days of competition, Emilie Gomis was the standard bearer for the French with a team-high 16 points on six-of-eight shooting. Gomis also went a perfect four-of-four from the penalty stripe. Isabelle Yacoubou added 14 points and two blocked shots, while Sandrine Gruda (Connecticut Sun) chipped in 10 points and a team-high seven rebounds, with two blocked shots. Playmaker Celine Dumerc also added 10 points while pulling down five rebounds and three assists.
Courtnay Pilypaitis (Vermont) who had been the go-to scorer for the Canadians in the run-up to the Olympics, was nearly shut out game, scoring just two points on one-of-three shooting. Back-up point guard Shona Thorburn (Utah, Seattle Storm (2007)) stepped up to fill the void with a game-high 17 points on 50 percent (7-14) from the field; she also grabbed four boards and dished out three assists despite being saddled with four fouls. Rising Notre Dame junior Natalie Achonwa had one of her best games of this Olympic campaign, adding 14 points and a game-high eight rebounds to the Canadian tally, as well as two assists and a steal.
The victory placed France atop the standings in its group and assured Les Bleues of a trip to the quarterfinals. France along with Russian is one of two teams still undefeated in Pool B and French coach Pierre Vincent wants to make sure his squad has done everything it can to remain at the top of Pool B when preliminary-round play ends on Sunday.
"That is the first step," Vincent said of his team's qualification to advance, "but it will not be a good thing if we qualify in fourth position (in the standings). We will wait until the end of the (group stage) competition. We want to avoid the USA."
Meanwhile, the Canadians dropped to 1-2, and are currently in third place in Group B. If they beat Brazil Friday, they will have earned a trip to the quarterfinals.
Russia 67, Great Britain 61
It's unwise to place too much emphasis on margin of victory in pool play when the Russians are involved, as they have traditionally been more concerned with setting things up for the single-elimination round than winning by a bunch. A case in point is the surprisingly close 67-61 win over Great Britain, which certainly could be viewed as a sign of a) Russia's weakness, or b) Great Britain's strength.
But since the British are winless, and likely to remain so, a closer look at Russia's strategy might be instructive. First, two of Russia's starters played fewer than 14 minutes, as the grind of the two-week competition can wear down teams, and on top of that, the five Russian starters totaled just 19 points in their time on the court. Second, the Russians stayed in a not particularly effective 2-3 zone almost the entire game, and as with most zone defenses, this one proved particularly vulnerable to offensive rebounds, of which the much smaller Britons managed 20 during the game.
The 25 Russian turnovers can't necessarily be laid to some grand plan, and credit must be given to Great Britain and veteran coach Tom Maher, as they combined to attack and exploit the backcourt weakness of the eventual winners.
Evgenia Beliakova led Russia with 12 points and Maraina Kuzina had 10, and all but two of the Russians scored. Becky Hammon had eight points and six assists, but was on the bench in the final minute when Great Britain made a late run -- she had committed her only two turnovers, but while she sat, other Russian perimeter players gained experience late in close games, even though the lead shrank.
Natalie Stafford topped the British with 18 points, and Jo Leedham added 14 despite missing 10 of her 14 shots. Leedham definitely has one thing in mind when she gets the ball, but even though her percentage has not been great, she gets to the line, and like all the Britons so far, is an excellent free-throw shooter.
Russia's spot in the quarterfinals is now assured, but Great Britain must find a way to win at least one of its last two games, against either unbeaten France or winless Brazil, and in addition, hope that Brazil beats Canada by not too much, and that somehow the British wind up on the right side of the tiebreaker.
China 76, Angola 52
China sealed a place in next week's Olympic women's basketball quarterfinals with a 76-52 win over Angola in Pool A preliminary round action. But Angola made a game of it for the first 20 minutes in its best performance yet at London 2012, with the African champions trailing the No. 7-ranked team in the world by just two points (33-31) at the half.
In the first half there were seven ties and five lead changes proving the Angolans have both talent and potential. But then came the third quarter. China opened the second half with a 10-0 run and outscored Angola 24-6 in the period. Angola was held scoreless until the 5:49 mark of the third when Felizarda Jorge finally broke the drought; Jorge had 10 points in the game. China then closed the game with a 14-6 run and handed Angola the 24-point loss.
China forced 20 turnovers and scored 10 fast-break points in the eventual rout. Zengyu Ma and Nan Chen who both had 15 points to lead team China. Sonia Gaudalupe led Angola with 12 points while Luisa Tomas added 11.
China is now 3-0 in preliminary play and, for the moment, at least, stands atop the Pool A rankings. However, the United States and Turkey, both of which are also undefeated, do not play their third game until later this evening. Should the United States win, it will likely resume its former place atop Pool A because the U.S. already owns a significantly cumulative larger margin of victory, which is how FIBA breaks such ties. Turkey would have to win its game against the United States by a significant margin to move past China into the No. 1 position, as its margin of victory at this point is the slimmest of the three undefeated teams in the group.
Meanwhle, despite putting up the best showing of its Olympic campaign to date, Angola drops to 0-3 with little to no chance of making it to the quarterfinals.
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