LONDON -- The United States expected a tough battle from the Czech Republic, and they got one -- at least for a while -- as the Czechs raced out to a 10-0 start in the nightcap of Day 4's Olympic women's basketball competition in the Basketball Arena at Olympic Park Friday. In what has become their modus operandi, Team USA struggled through a slow start in the early going, gradually gained steam as the game entered its second quarter, and then cruised to a comfortable win in the second half as they picked up their 37th consecutive Olympic victory.
As U.S. coach Geno Auriemma continued to experiment with his starting lineup, the U.S. went small, with former Connecticut standouts Maya Moore and Asjha Jones getting the nod on alongside Sue Bird (Seattle Storm), Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi. But more than 2:15 had run off the clock and the score stood at 10-0 in favor of the Czechs before Maya Moore connected from downtown to put Team USA on the scoreboard.
"We're going to have to find a way to get off to better starts," said Catchings with visible frustration. "We'll watch the videotape and we'll find a way to fix what is happening."
But Auriemma did not seem overly concerned. "When you get to the Olympic Games, your shooting percentages can go down. Players tend to rush things. The offense is going to go up and down, depending on the day."
Once Moore got things under way, the U.S. gradually got itself into the game, closing to within one when Tina Charles took a Catchings feed and laid it in at the 5:10 mark, and taking their first lead of the game only 20 seconds later when Taurasi picked Eva Viteckova's pocket and took it coast-to-coast for a fastbreak layup. By the 2:36 mark, the U.S. had swelled its lead to five (22-17) as Seimone Augustus drained a three, but that advantage would not last long, as Katerina Bartanova answered in kind. The waning minutes of the quarter found Katerina Zrustova and Tereza Peckova knock down back-to-back long balls, followed by a midrange jumper from Bartonova to put the Czechs back on top by two, 26-24, as the buzzer sounded the end of the quarter.
The two sides traded misses and turnovers for the first two minutes of the second period before Moore grabbed the rebound from an errant shot by Petra Kulichova and took it coast-to-coast, laying it in to equalize the score. Michaela Zrustova quickly regained the lead for the Czechs, netting a short jumper and Hana Horakova drove to the hoop for two points more on the next Czech possession. But Taurasi answered quickly with one of her four treys of the night. Katerina Zohnova attempted to answer in kind at the other end, but was way off the mark, and Moore grabbed the board and fed it to Catchings on the fastbreak, as the Americans began to get their running game going.
Catchings' layup made it 31-30, U.S.A., but the Czechs would take the lead once more before a Tina Charles (Connecticut Sun) grabbed the offensive board from a missed three-point attempt by Bird and dropped in the put-back with 6:13 to go in the opening half, giving the Americans the lead for good. Charles' layup also ignited a 17-4 U.S. run over the next four minutes that culminated with two from the charity stripe by Candace Parker that put the U.S. on top by 12, 48-36, in the waning minutes of the half.
Jana Vesela (Seattle Storm) grabbed the board from a teammate's missed foul shot in the final minute of the half, to cut the gap to 10 heading into the break, but it was clear the momentum of the game had radically shifted.
Proof of that was not long in coming. Thirty seconds after play resumed after the intermission, as Taurasi netted another three off an assist from Catchings. As the American defense battened down, Taurasi's shot ignited a 20-3 U.S. run that consumed the bulk of the third period. When Lindsay Whalen and Charles capped the surge with back-to-back fastbreak layups just inside the three-minute mark of the period, the United States was up by 27 points, with the score 68-41.
Zrustova finally breathed life into the Czech offense, driving the lane for a layup just inside the two-minute mark, and the two sides traded layups for the balance of the period as the interior defense of both teams proved uncommonly permeable. Nonetheless, the United States still held a 23-point lead as the buzzer sounded the end of the quarter, and those final two minutes are just about all that can be criticized in an American defensive effort that had held the Czechs to just six points in the entire period and generated 20 Czech turnovers, from which the U.S. gleaned 23 points, over the course of the game.
The Americans were particularly effective in shutting down the hail of threes with which the Czechs had gotten the party started, holding them to six-of-21 (29 percent) over the game as a whole and thereby turning the Czech's propensity to hoist up long balls into a liability rather than an asset. "The Czech Republic do very well on three-pointers," observed Moore. "In terms of our three-point defense, which is something we've been trying to lock in on, we did well."
Though the Czechs once again began to find their marks in the final period, the Americans gave up no ground. To the contrary, they gained some to close the game out at 88-61, having retaken their 27-point lead,
The game began before a packed house of 9,341 but nearly half the seats had emptied as the Americans had brought the Czechs to their knees in the second and third quarters. Remarkably, given the intense effort exerted by both sides, many among those who remained began booing as Whalen dribbled out the final seconds. A British journalist explained in the press conference that followed that many in Britain don't like it when a team holds the ball at the end of a game or a period. That led to a bit of levity by both coaches.
"What did they want us to do? Put up another three?" quipped Auriemma. Taurasi's eight three-point attempts, resulting in four makes, on Friday matched a U.S. record for attempted threes in an Olympic game that Taurasi herself had set twice before -- in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, according to a USA Basketball spokesperson, who also noted the game had marked American records for Olympic field-goal attempts (90, with 35 makes for a 39-percent field-goal shooting percentage) and rebounds (62, as the U.S. outrebounded the Czechs 62-39). The U.S. energy on the offensive boards in particular led to 24 second-chance points (to just eight for the Czech Republic), while the Americans' defensive rebounding and active hands on defense contributed to a 20-11 American advantage in fastbreak points.
"Maybe they wanted me to call a timeout," offered Czech coach Lubor Blazek, who had been rebuked by a FIBA official after calling for time to work up a final play in the final seconds of his team's victory over Croatia on Monday. Blazek said he had unsuccessfully tried to argue his case that he had not been trying to humiliate his opponent but merely to buffer his score should he need the point spread as the tiebreaker to advance to the quarterfinals.
Auriemma picked up the thread. "We held the ball so he could call his timeout, but he just wouldn't do it," he jested.
Auriemma summarized the game as "a tale of two halves."
"In the first half we scored a lot of points and we gave up a lot of points. In the second half our defense was really, really good, especially defending the three. I thought we did a great job defending the three the entire second half. Offense isn't going to be a problem for our team. It certainly wasn't tonight; we're scoring enough points."
Zrustova led the way for the Czech Republic with 15 points, while Viteckova chipped in 12. Despite the loss, Zrustova, a 25-year-old forward who looks 15 and said she had grown up idolizing Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor, was thrilled to have met her hero, relating how excited she was when the American star had walked over to congratulate her on the game and remark on how impressed she was with her shooting.
Zrustova, speaking through a translator, added that she and her teammates had done their best to put up a fight, but the the Americans were simply too fast. The pace of the game wore them down, and ultimately the Czechs could no longer keep up with the as time went on, Zrustova explained.
That strategy of attrition was exactly the U.S. game plan, as Auriemma observed afterward.
"The Czech Republic team was very difficult to play against," he said. "When they got a 10-0 advantage, they showed their excellence shooting the ball. Defensively, the only chance we had was to wear them down, and I think that's exactly what happened."
Catchings had noted the same thing, while lamenting her team's chronically slow starts. "The rest of the world is definitely getting better," she said, but added that after a quarter or two, most were not able to keep up with the Americans' supply of fresh legs in a running game.
Taurasi led Americans with 18 points on six of 13 (46 percent) from the field and four of eight (50 percent) from beyond the arc. "We certainly need Diana to play the way she did today," said Auriemma. "She can stretch a team's defense like nobody else."
Moore added a full stat line of 14 points, eight rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block, but in addition to what showed up in the box score, here speed and quick hands were evident everywhere, resulting in disruptions and deflections. "One of the reasons she's in the starting line is she is just a high-energy player," explained Auriemma. "She will play every possession until the end. She's been like that since college. She works incredibly hard on the floor, harder than any other player I've seen."
Charles contributed a double-double of 16 points and 15 rebounds, plus an assist and a steal, and Catchings chimed in with 10 points and four assists. Sue Bird failed to score, but she contributed a game-high nine assists.
On Sunday, the United States, which is the lone undefeated team still standing in Pool A, takes on China (1-3), which lost to Turkey, also 1-3, 82-55 Friday. Should the United States win, it will emerge as the top team from the group, taking on Canada in the quarterfinals, though given the margin of the American wins, they could finish first anyway. If China loses, they will likely finish third in the group, a fate most teams whis to avoid since it could lead to a meeting with the United States in the semifinals, a fate most hope to avoid.
Meanwhile, the Czechs (1-3) face Angola Sunday in a must-win game. A victory would automatically put the Czechs through the the quarterfinals, where was a loss might result in a three-way tie among the Czechs, Croatia and Angola for the final quarterfinal berth allocated to Group A. Between now and then, the Czechs, who are elated to be still in the mix to advance, are hoping to collect on the promise of a traditional Czech meal of beef, gravy and sliced dumplings promised to them at the Czech House as a reward for defeating Croatia on Monday.