LONDON -- Two surprises – quite apart from the dunk by Liz Cambage – and a near-shocker marked Day 4 of the 2012 London Olympics women’s basketball competition. First, Canada bounced back in the fourth quarter to upset favored Brazil and move on to the knockout round, which begins next week, and then Turkey demolished an apparently less than intense Chinese team to punch its ticket to the quarterfinals.
The game of the day, though, was plucky Great Britain forcing unbeaten France into overtime before losing on a last-second three-pointer by Celine Dumerc – which, in fact, was the second buzzer-beating three by Dumerc, who did the same thing at the end of regulation to force overtime.
Though the game had little bearing on which teams would advance to the knockout round, the outcome did deny the British their first-ever Olympic win, and did keep France’s hopes of winning Group B – and thus avoiding Team USA, conceivably, until the finals – alive. And there is also that little France-Great Britain rivalry thing, which rumor has it dates back more than a couple centuries.
In what was not a surprise, Croatia handed Angola another loss and made a bit of history by recording its first-ever Olympic victory in women's basketball, but the Croatians need the winless Angolans to upset the Czech Republic Sunday to have a shot at advancing out of pool play.
France 80, Great Britain 77
One of the great unsettled coaching debates is whether to foul with a three-point lead and under five seconds remaining. One risk is committing the foul a half-second too late and putting a player at the free-throw line three times instead of letting her take a low-percentage shot; the other risk is that she makes the low-percentage shot.
Tom Maher was telling his defenders not to foul Dumerc at the end of regulation as she dribbled down the court, even though she was clearly not in position to force a shot and draw three free-throw attempts – and even though she is left-handed, and loves to go left, they let her go left, plant and fire. And suddenly, a brilliant, gritty effort by the underdogs was forced into overtime.
During the extra time, Great Britain’s Jo Leedham continued her outstanding second-half play, and gave the British a 74-72 lead by getting to the free throw line for the seventh and eighth times. And once there, the British were money, making 21 of 22 on the game. Natalie Stafford added two more free throws to put the hosts up four, but Julie Page wnt missed a shot and turned the ball over on the next two trips to allow the French to pull into the lead. The heroine in this stretch was WNBA veteran Edwige Lawson-Wade, who also played well in the fourth quarter, but after Page missed a free throw – yes, the only one the Britons missed was crucial – to leave the score tied, Dumerc again dribbled down, again with her left hand, and again drilled a three.
This time, however, it was for the win, as there was only 0.2 left on the clock, so the game was effectively over.
Dumerc finished with 14 points, trailing Lawson-Wade and Sandrine Gruda, who each had 16, and Isabelle Yacoubou, who had 15, but the veteran guard certainly stole the spotlight with her late heroics.
Leedham, who finished with 29, including what seemed to be a game-clinching, all-hustle, falling-to-the-floor follow of her own miss with 25.1 seconds left in regulation, topped the losers, while Stafford with 18 and Kim Butler with 12 were also in double figures.
The French will now move on to play the 3-1 Russians, and if they win, they will win Group B. If they lose, and Australia handles Canada, it will come down to a tiebreaker to sort out the quarterfinal matchups.
Great Britain, on the other hand, will have one more chance for that elusive first win, and will take on disappointing Brazil, which came to London looking for a medal, and will leave not having advanced out of pool play.
Canada 79, Brazil 73
After blowing a 10-point lead late against Russia, and ultimately falling to a 67-61 loss on Monday, it looked like the North Americans’ dreams of advancing to the medal round would disappear as well when the Canadians watched a 14-point second-half lead evaporate against Brazil’s press today.
But this time, the last part of the fourth quarter belonged to the Canadians, as they took over a 62-62 game and rolled to a 79-73 win, booking a spot in the Olympic quarterfinals for the first time in Canadian women's basketball history. There, they will most likely will be "rewarded" by playing their neighbor to the south, Team USA, in the quarterfinals.
In that event, said Canadian head coach Alison McNeill, ""We are going to do what we do, we are not going to be something we are not. We will try and slow the game down and hope that they don't run and score. We will play the way we play and let the chips fall where they may."
The key player down the stretch for Canada was Shona Thorburn, who played at Utah and was a disappointment as a first-round Minnesota Lynx pick in the WNBA draft. She finished with 10 points and eight assists, and was instrumental in dealing with the Brazilian pressure that briefly put the South Americans ahead, 57-56.
Courtnay Pilypaitis (Vermont) and Kim Smith (Utah and Sacramento Monarchs) led the Canadians with 14 points each, and Smith is now shooting 59 percent in London and leads her team in scoring, shooting percentage and blocked shots (with five). Tamara Tatham also had a big game with 13 points and three steals as the Canadians overcame a 32-15 deficit in free throws attempted to move out of pool play for the first time since 1984.
"We had a great start and rode that for the first half," said Pilypaitis. "We slowed down in the third [period], then we started to attack and get back to normal. It feels great to get a win."
Pilypaitis, who has been a scoring mainstay for the Canadians throughout their Olympic quest, conceded that she and her teammates had exceeded all expectations of them.
"It's a great feeling just to represent your country and to exceed expectations is great. We are ranked 11th in the world, so technically we shouldn't move on. To be in the last eight is great momentum for our younger teams and for basketball in general."
"It's been a long time since we have beaten them [Brazil]," said McNeill. "They've been a dominant power in the Americas and this was just a great win for us. Brazil's quick and tough. In the third quarter they gave us some good offense with the pressure but once we started to attack the pressure we kind of released. Down the stretch we had a couple of clutch rebounds, a couple of big threes. Courtnay [Pilypaitis] hit one, I think Shona [Thorburn] hit one. So when we were up seven, it was the first time I felt comfortable," McNeill added, calling her team's advance to the quarterfinals "historic."
Post players Erika de Souza and Cintia dos Santos combined for 43 points and 22 rebounds for Brazil, but Karla Costa and the other perimeter players simply did not shoot well enough for Brazil to win the very physical game.
The loss knocks Brazil out of the medal round, a definite surprise as the South Americans were considered to be a medal contender. Of course, that was before Iziane Castro Marques was kicked off the team for having her boyfriend in her hotel room, and the dynamic Castro Marques could have easily made a difference in close game like this one.
The Brazilian players were so distressed by the unexpected loss, and by their poor performance in these Olympic Games as a whole, that they headed straight to the showers, with none of them joining their coach for the postgame press conference.
"My team suffered with the three previous losses," said Brazilian head coach Luis Tarallo. "It was very tough being so close and not beating France, Russia and Australia. We tried to work hard on their emotional status but it wasn't that easy. We had an Olympic dream but the fact that we were so affected emotionally was clear in the first half.
"During the games we had magical moments of basketball, with great baskets, but also surprising mistakes. That inconsistency didn't help us. We went on working at halftime and the girls reacted, but it wasn't enough."
Tarallo said there were multiple reasons for his squad's inability to close out close games.
"It was a little bit of everything. A little bit psychological and a little bit tactical," he said. "During the games we had magical moments of basketball, with great baskets, but also surprising mistakes. That inconsistency didn't help us."
Of course, the absence of the team's leading scorer didn't help much either, but predictably Tarallo didn't mention it.
Joice Rodrigues, one of the team's younger players at age 25, was disconsolate. "Give me a slap on my face," she said of Brazil having come back to take a late lead and still losing. "We fought a lot but it was very sad. Everything worked but we didn't get the results we wanted .We spent three months training -- I didn't come here to make a fool of myself."
"This is the first time I have represented my country," Rodrigues continued. "I am sorry, thank you for coming," she said, addressing the team's fans. "I am very sorry and sad, I have a son and a family back home and I really wanted to come back to them with a medal to show them.
As to why her teammates declined to speak with the press, Rodrigues responded, "Yes, because all of them are crying. I have already cried a lot."
However, Brazilian National Team veteran Adrian Moises Pinto (Florida International) who spent several years in the WNBA, starting in 2001-02 with the now-defunct Miami Sol, and returning in 2007 for the Phoenix Mercury, paused on her way to the locker room to share her perspective on the loss:
"Brazil has the level to play against good teams," Pinto said. "Our preparation was good but something went wrong. It's difficult to understand why we didn't win. Maybe we have to change the way we work or change the preparation.
"This experience tells us that we have to keep on working for the future. We have to add some stuff to what we do," Pinto continued. "We were close against France, against Russia, against Australia and against Canada. We just need a little bit more on defense and offense."
The 5-6 point guard, who at 33 is nearing the end of her playing career, sees the prospect of Brazil's return to dominance in the future. "Brazil is a big country with many athletes and we have the talent," she said. "The youngest girls have to take this forward. Learn what we did and add things. If I knew what we are missing, I'd try to solve it.
"We need to travel more to international tournaments, play the teams that we face in the Olympics. Our local competition is very different, without so many tall girls as at other levels."
But the Canadians were as jubilant with their historic win as the Brazilians were devastated by the loss.
"This is the first time I've beaten Brazil and the Olympics is the best time to do so," said forward Chelsea Aubry (Nebraska). "We rallied back in the fourth quarter when our backs were up against the wall with some great layups. We played the press well and finally learned how to handle it. This is huge for us as we were seen as the pushover team."
"it is a huge win," agreed Canadian wing Lizanne Murphy (Hofstra). "When we've played them in the past it’s been 20, 30-points blowouts. They're a really talented team but they foul too much."
There will now be no pressure on the Canadians as they wrap up pool play against Australia Sunday – and Brazil will conclude its disappointing trip to London against a Great Britain team that will be still be looking for its first-ever Olympic win after the closest of misses against France in overtime.
Turkey 82, China 55
The Turks needed to win to assure a trip to the knockout round, but China needed to win to avoid a likely matchup with Team USA in the semifinals, so there was motivation on both sides – or so it seemed until the game began.
China played as if it didn’t matter when they ran into the U.S., while Turkey played with a serious sense of urgency that resulted in an early 18-0 run and a much easier win than might have been expected against a team that entered the game unbeaten.
It was 12-point game at halftime, thanks to a 13-3 Turkish advantage in turnovers, and the Chinese never got any closer in a desultory second half.
Nevriye Yilmaz led Turkey with 16 points and eight rebounds, and Quanitra Hollingsworth(Virginia Commonwealth and the New York Liberty) also had a double-double with 10 points and 22 rebounds. Esmeral Tuncluer finished with 12 points and both Isil Alben and Bahar Caglar added 11.
Nan Chen topped China with 19 points and eight rebounds, but the Chinese had just one steal in the game, as opposed to 20 turnovers, and simply quit in the waning minutes of the game.
Croatia 75, Angola 56
Croatia made history and kept its hopes of a quarterfinals berth alive – though just barely – with a 75-56 victory over Angola this morning at the Basketball Arena in Olympic Park. Both nations are making their first Olympic appearances here at London 2012 and despite periods of strong play by each, neither had managed a win before today.
The outcome was not in doubt after the first quarter, however, when with the score tied at 11, Sandra Mandir and Ana Lelas ignited a 9-0 run that gave Croatia the lead for good.
With neither team shooting the ball particularly well from the floor – 33 percent field-goal shooting for Angola (21-63) to 37 percent (22-60) for Croatia – perimeter shooting and success at the penalty stripe carried the day for Croatia. The Croats knocked down seven of their 19 attempts from downtown while Angola connected on just three of its17 shots from long range.
Meanwhile, Croatia made 31 trips to the line, connecting on 77 percent of their shot attempts for a total of 24 points.
In her best performance of the tournament, Lelas posted a game-high 23 points, including three-of-seven from long-distance, for Croatia, to which she added a high six rebounds, and an assist. Team captain Mandir contributed 18 points, plus five boards and five assists, but four turnovers, while Marija Vsraljko chipped in 10 points and a game-high (tie) eight boards.
"Finally we found our game today," said Lelas. "I'm glad the girls that came off the bench were able to get fast breaks and easy layups. The next game is going to be a lot harder." "I think we played well for 40 minutes unlike in our two previous games where we gave up more shots in the last 10 minutes," Lelas added. "This is a big win for Croatian basketball and now we want to show we have the quality to play in the quarterfinals."
Luisa Tomas led the way for Angola with 15 points on 54 percent (seven-of-12) from the field. She also matched Vsraljko with eight rebounds, as did team captain Nacissela Mauricio, who also added 12 points. Nadir Manuel rounded out the Angolans in double figures with 14 points, four rebounds, and three assists.
The loss extinguishes any hope of Angola, now 0-4, advancing, but the African champs could make history if they are capable of pulling out a win on Sunday against the Czech Republic, thereby becoming the first African team in Olympic history to register a victory in pool play. (Nigeria’s 2004 victory came in the classification bracket.)
"It is hard to be in this situation with more experienced teams and we must learn to manage the difference," said Angola head coach Anibal Moreiera.
Meanwhile, the victory kept Croatia’s hopes to advance dim, but still alive. With a 1-3 record, Croatia presently sits in fourth place, but four of the teams in its pool have yet to play their fourth games. Since the Czech Republic (1-2) holds the head-to-head tie-breaker, Croatia would have to win Sunday’s contest with Turkey, and also hope that the Czechs lose both tonight’s game against the United States and Sunday’s pairing with Angola, the latter of which is not considered likely.
With additional reporting by Clay Kallam.