LONDON -- Form held on Day 5 of the London Olympics, and thus the quarterfinal matchups that everyone expected after Day 4 are now set in stone.
With France's victory over Russia, the French win Group B, and will draw the Czech Republic (fourth in Group A) in the quarterfinals. The United States, the 800-pound gorilla of the event, won Group A, and will play Canada.
Russia, however, which gave a very desultory effort in losing to France, avoids the United States in the first two rounds after its loss to France and third-place finish, and gets Turkey, second in Group A, in the first game. China and Australia complete the knockout bracket.
Not surprisingly, the last day's games were mostly played with the medal round in mind, so key players rested more than they usually might, and coaches revealed as little as possible to future opponents. Canada's comeback against Australia was an exception, as the Canadians, barring an upset for the ages, have only one more game left in London and thus have no need to save anything.
France 65, Russia 54
With a 65-54 win over Russia this morning, France finished preliminary-round play in the London 2012 Olympic women's basketball competition as the lone undefeated team out of Group B, characterized by many as "the group of death" because it included so many of the sport's international powerhouses, other than the United States. With the win, France cements the top seed out of Group B as the survivors of each pool cross over into the quarterfinals on Tuesday of next week.
With both teams having already qualified for the quarterfinals, all that was at stake was pride and seedings -- not only for the two teams themselves but also for Australia, which had an outside chance of winning the group going into the last day of play. All that is water under the bridge now, as France, which led by as many as 25 points in the third quarter, gave the Russians their first double-digit shellacking in elite-level FIBA competition between the two since the 2006 World Championships in Brazil, when France prevailed in a preliminary-round game by a margin of 74-64.
"We have beaten Russia before," said French center Isabelle Yacoubou, "but never with so much difference."
France, the third-place finisher at last year's Eurobasket Women behind Turkey and European champion Russia, has met the Russians on the court many times in the past. On occasion, the French have even emerged the victors, most recently in a pair of games at Eurobasket 2009, in which France prevailed 57-53 in one game and 72-66 in the other. But never have the French pummeled the Russians as badly as they did in this morning's game, leaving some, including the French players and coach, to wonder whether Russia might have had a strategic motive to take a dive in this game.
The common assumption here at the Basketball Arena in Olympic Park is that the United States, currently the sole remaining undefeated team in Group A, will finish the preliminaries in the No. 1 spot from that group, which indeed turned out to be the case. All three of the top Group B teams wanted to finish in first place, and failing that, in third, while nobody wanted to come out at No. 2, which would likely mean a semifinal match-up with the United States. (Given its record, Canada can finish no better than fourth in Pool B.) Thus, Russia had plenty of motivation to win, but if that seemed anything but certain, then its interests lay in losing, and losing by enough to ensure a third-place finish.
Whatever the strategy, both sides got off to a rather slow start, which players from both sides attributed, at least in part, to the early tip. "It's too early," said Russia's Anna Petrokova of the 9 a.m. start time. "We get up at 6.30 and there's no shoot-around. At training camps, we do intense practice in the mornings, but it's hard to be 100 percent alert at that time. It's not something we're used to."
France's Isabelle Yacoubou agreed that nine in the morning was not a good time to play basketball, though she noted that the French were accustomed to early wake-up calls, as they get up at 6 a.m. regularly to work out with their physiotherapists. The crowd of 7,855 who braved the rain that was draining the female marathon runners as they made their way through the streets of London to enjoy a Sunday morning of basketball with their coffee and croissants did not seem to mind however, as they waited to the much anticipated collision between the No. 8 (France) and No. 2 (Russia) teams in the world.
France put the first four points on the board in the first minute, but Russia promptly responded with a 9-0 run over the next three minutes to take the early lead. The scoreboard stood frozen at 9-4, Russia, for the next two minutes, before Marion Laborde broke the French drought with a short jumper at the 4:16 mark. Edwina Lawson-Wade closed the gap to one point on another inside jumper with just under three minutes remaining, and when Russia's Nadezhda Grishaeva answered a minute later, Yacoubou dropped in a layup to once again make it a one-point game with 1:24 to go in the opening period.
That, however, would be the last bucket for the French for the balance of the period, while Grishaeva finished two more lay-ups on assists from Ilona Korstin and Becky Hammon to make the score 15-10 in Russia's favor by the end of one low-scoring period.
Executing a strong inside-outside game that alternated layups with kick-outs for jumpers just inside the perimeter, France outscored the Russians 10-5 over the first five minutes of the second period to tie the score at 20. For the next five minutes, long stretches of scoring silence for both sides were broken only by two buckets, the second a three-pointer, from French point guard and team captain Celine Dumerc, and a foul shot -- one of two -- by Russia's Natalya Zhedik, sending the teams to the locker with France holding the slight, 25-21, advantage.
The French campaign got under way in earnest in the third period, as France responded to an Evgeniya Belyakova three-pointer by launching a 9-0 run in just a minute-and-a-half that took the score to 44-26 by the midway point of the quarter. But that one spurt doesn't begin to tell the story of the French dominance, as France outscored the Russians 17-5 over the first five minutes and 30-13 over the quarter as a hole, taking total charge of the contest. Dumerc was a force throughout the French surge, registering seven of her team-high 12 points (plus three assists and two steals) in the pivotal third period, which finished with three Russian turnovers in a span of two-and-a-half minutes and with the French on top, 55-34.
"We lost our concentration," Belyakova said of her team's uncharacteristically poor third-quarter performance. "We missed a lot of balls and we didn't make any shots. We lost our spirit."
The French strategy was to defend the pick and roll, which they did to good effect for all but a short span in the first half, where they were late in rotation off back screens. But even the French were surprised at the permeability of the vaunted Russian defense, which fueled the speculation that the Russians might be throwing the game to avoid any chance of a second-place finish. As Dumerc put it, "I was very surprised with how easy it was. It was our easiest game [of the Olympic tournament]. I think they may not have wanted to win very much."
French coach Pierre Vincent agreed with that assessment, openly suggesting that the Russians may have given the game less than their best effort, hoping to ensure a third-place finish and thereby avoid an early showdown with the Americans. Confronted with the specter of the four badminton teams disqualified from the Olympics this week for doing much the same thing, Vincent at first seemed to backpedal, stating, "I will not pass judgment on him [Russian coach Boris Sokolovsky]." Then he reiterated his original position, noting that the Russians have long had a reputation for coasting in major tournament preliminaries, expending the minimal critical effort needed to advance. He then asked, "And if he did not bring out his best players to play after the second half, what would you say? [Was that] using best efforts to win the game?"
Vincent had a point. Many of the best Russian players sat on the bench for much of the second half -- for some, nearly all of it. Starting power forward Olga Arteshina, for example, played 12.5 minutes in the first half, during which she was largely ineffective, but only two minutes the rest of the way. Grishaeva, who had been one of the Russian's most effective forces on the floor during the opening half, notching eight points on 50-percent field-goal shooting, played less than 10 minutes in the second half, starting wing Natalya Zhedik just a little more than six, starting center Natalya Vieru less than six, and veteran two-guard Ilona Korstin less than five.
Hammon got 21:39 minutes of playing time, more than any other Russian but team captain and starting post Irina Osipova (25:44), but each played fewer than 10 minutes in the second half, as Russian coach Boris Sokolovsky all but sent up the white flag.
Russia failed to score for more than the first four minutes of the final period until Hammon finally netted a short jumper with 5:42 to go. But France hadn't exactly been burning up the nets during the timeframe, either, as the French gunners fell silent with the exception of Endene Miyem, who put in a layup off an Elodie Godin assist a little under a minute into the quarter. Over the final five minutes, both sides picked up the pace again, and whether starters or subs, one would have to acknowledge that the players Russia had on the floor in the games waning minutes did put up more than a token effort, mounting a 10-0 run over the final two minutes of the game that shaved the French lead by more than half to the final score of 65-54.
Belyakova was the only Russian player to achieve double figures, posting a game-high 14 points; Alena Danilochkina and Osipova led their team in rebounding with five apiece. Collectively, the Russians shot just 31 percent (19-16) from the field, 40 percent (six-of-15) from the arc and 53 percent (10-19) from the free-throw line.
"It was a terrible game from our side," said Sokolovsky afterward. "I congratulate the French team and coach, they showed much stronger wishes to win today. Our girls woke up only before the end of the fourth quarter."
"We were horrible," said Hammon, summing up her view of the game. "But give them credit. We did not shoot the ball well, we haven't shot well in the whole tournament and we have to look at that between now and the next game."
Still, Hammon was not displeased with the outcome: "We are in third and we are happy with that position. All the teams are tough but you want to avoid playing against the USA until as late as possible."
Petrakova was less concerned with whom her team plays next: "We're not sure who we'll play next, but it's not a bad situation for us. Any team is beatable. Our team is capable. I believe we need full mental preparation. Everyone has to come out 100 percent and take responsibility for their actions."
Dumerc, with her 12 points to go with three assists and two steals, was the only French player in double digits as well. It wasn't long ago that one would have been met with ridicule had she suggested that France could beat Russia at its vaunted post strong point, but that is exactly what happened this game. Despite a considerable Russian edge in size, Yacoubou led the battle of the boards with seven rebounds; the French modestly outrebounded Russia, 42-41; and they controlled the paint by a 38-20 margin. France also garnered 23 points from the Russians' 16 turnovers, while giving up only 13 points off their own 14 miscues.
As a team, France shot an efficient 45 percent (28-62) from the field, including four-of-eight (50 percent) from beyond the arc. Dumerc supplied half the long-distance firepower for France, netting both of her two long-ball attempts.
Dumerc admitted she and her teammates had never envisioned themselves advancing as the top team in Group B, content to take one game at a time. "We worked together for five years to get here," said Vincent. "In Europe, it is very tough to qualify, there are teams like Spain and Belarus that are not here. We have fought to be here; now it is a bonus for us [to have earned the top seed]."
While he was glad not to have finished fourth, thus facing a likely quarterfinal meeting with Team USA, Vincent believes that any of the three other teams advancing out of Group A will give them a tough fight. "We have to win one game to fight for the semifinals. Not to be in fourth is important so you don't have to play the USA; they are unbeatable. But between positions one and three, it doesn't matter."
As the morning's competition evolved, the Czech Republic, who took the final quarterfinal berth with their victory over Angola and will advance fourth out of Group A, was revealed as France's quarterfinal opponent. France last met the Czechs in FIBA competition in the bronze-medal game of Eurobasket Women 2011, where the French emerged as victors in a hard-fought, 63-56, contest.
Sandrine Gruda and Biekes credited the French defense for the French success: "Well, you know, it's the same team we've always had. It's all bout our heads," said Gruda, who previously played for the WNBA's Connecticut Sun. ""We have a quality defense; any opponents know they won't score more than 60 points against us."
Meanwhile, while Yacoubou, while acknowledging her team's success on the defensive end, particularly in neutralizing the Russians' three-point shooting, said it was their offense that got the job done:
"We are first of the group which is good for us," Yacoubou stated. "In the morning we had a little difficulty starting the game, but after, the second half was better. We found our solution in offense, baskets inside, three-point shots, which is our specialty. We love each other, we like to win to play together and we like to win together."
In the end it was a bit of both -- solid offense and aggressive offense -- plus, perhaps, a little bit of help from the Russians themselves that carried the day for France. But all of the French players we spoke with, as well as their coach agreed on two things:
First, Dumerc was the lynchpin for the French. "Celine was huge," said Yacoubou. I hope she plays like this for the rest of the competition, because we need everybody at 100 percent, but especially her. She is the heart of the team."
Second, the French feel they won't have won anything unless they prevail in Tuesday's quarterfinal. "It's like a final for us. [We need] to win the next game," said Yacoubou. Addressing French fans, Beikes added, "Thank you for supporting us. And we need them for the quarterfinal, because it is the most important game. It's bad for you if you win the first five games and then lose the quarterfinal, so we need them."
The French once loved Les Bleus so much that nearly 100 fans packed their bags and flew all the way to China to watch their team play in the 2002 Women's World Championships. Dumerc is certain French women's basketball is definitely on the way back to international prominence, but whether they will regain the place they once held in the hearts of the French public remains to be seen.
"We won't know until we see what happens," she said. "We have worked hard to be here, and if we win something, they will love us. If not, ...." Her voice drifted off as she shrugged away the thought.
Australia 73, Canada 62
Like the Russians, but for a different reason, the Australians played a strategic game against Canada, especially after jumping out to an early 19-point lead. The Opals lost their spark after what seemed like a definitive statement about which was the better team and allowed the Canadians to claw their way back into the game -- and in fact, get within two points in the fourth quarter.
That came about partly because Lauren Jackson and Elizabeth Cambage, who combined for 37 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots, had headed to the bench after putting Australia ahead 41-25 with more than six minutes still to go in the third period. The high-scoring duo remained on the bench during much of the Canadian rally, and also thanks to some dismal perimeter shooting against Canada's zone defense from the Aussies still on the floor. But once Jackson and Cambage returned, for the final few minutes, order was restored. Jackson started hitting free throws and collectively, the Opals accounted for 10 of the game's last 14 points, quelling any Canadian upset hopes.
But why allow Canada to get so close? As with every team here, the goal is not to dominate in pool play but rather to get to the podium, and players like Jackson and Kristi Harrower, the starting point guard, are in their 30s and need to be as fresh as possible for the knockout round. Though Jackson played 24 minutes, she would have played even less, most likely, had the game been closer, and Harrower was only on the floor for 20 minutes.
Another veteran, Belinda Snell, did play 31 minutes, but she was the only Australian making threes -- she was four of eight, and the rest of the team was one of nine -- and with Jackson and Cambage on the bench, the Opals had to find some offense somewhere. Snell finished with 12 points, but Suzie Batkovic, another Australian veteran, played just 17 minutes and didn't make a shot from the floor.
As a result of the Aussie victory over Canada today, the Opals finish second in Group B. That's not entirely good news: This will be the first Olympics of the past four that will not see a U.S.-Australia final. "It is the first time since '96 [Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games] that we will face the USA in the semis rather than the final," said veteran Australian point guard Kristi Harrower, who had earlier told Fullcourt.com, that she won't be returning to the WNBA after these Olympics and is considering retiring after these Games. Harrower also indirectly expressed a lot of confidence that the Opals would get by China in the quarterfinals.
The Canadian rally presented the perfect opportunity for the Opals to beat Russia at its own game in what most behind the scenes here in the Olympic Basketball Arena believe to have been the tactics behind today's double-digit Russian loss to France.
Veteran Australian point guard Kristi Harrower seemed to think the ploy wouldn't have worked anyway: "If we had lost [to Canada], we would have finished fourth and would have faced the USA in the quarterfinals," Harrower said.
But that's not necessarily true. A loss to Canada would have created a three-way tie among Russia, Canada and Australia, with the cumulative differential between points scored by and points scored against each team over the course of the preliminaries serving as the tiebreaker.
In any event, Australian coach Carrie Graf has twice now publicly rejected the suggestion of taking a powder in order to avoid finishing second, thereby winding up in the same knockout-round bracket as the United States, calling the concept "un-Australian," the first time after dropping its own hotly contested game to France and again yesterday outside the Olympic Village.
"It's a different way of thinking," explained one Australian journalist. "The Russians may be able to explain away a [double-digit] loss to France. The people at home in Australia would never accept it."
Unlike Harrower, coach Carrie Graf wasn't thinking about a potential game with Team USA. "That's not our focus," Graf said. "We've got a quarterfinal against China. All our focus and energy is going on that. [China's] Chen Nan has had some great games in this tournament and Miao Lijie is a veteran. We're well versed on the Chinese style of play," added Graf, whose team played one of its warm-up tournaments in China.
Still, there might have been a message for the U.S. in some of Graf's other postgame remarks. "We've got some street fighters on our team," she stated. "We're not going to roll over. We'll scratch, bite, do whatever it takes to win. We've got some big strong women that won't shy away from a dogfight. It's not pretty at times."
Jackson was more willing to speak directly to the prospect of a U.S.-Australia semi, in which one of the world's top two teams will inevitably have to settle for bronze: "We did it [not finishing first in their pool] to ourselves," said Jackson. "We lost to France."
Harrower knows that a quarterfinal victory over China will be no walkover, despite relatively easy wins in pre-Olympic exhibition play. "We played them before the tournament and won comfortably, but they have improved," she stated. "They are quick and Asian basketball is a different style, so we will have to be ready to go."
Kim Smith once again led Canada with some impressive shooting: She was five of seven from the field for 17 points, including three of four from beyond the arc during Canada's second-half rally. No other Canadian reached double figures, however, and the North Americans had 23 turnovers and just 12 assists. Still, it was another impressive outing for Canada, though it's likely the run will end against Team USA on Monday.
Smith pointed out the significance of her team's quarterfinal appearance, and its close games not only against Australia but in most of its pool-play match-ups, for the growth of Canadian women's basketball.
It wasn't that long ago, Smith noted, that when the Canadians took on a European or other international power, they'd be setting a goal like "let's try to lose by less than 20." Today they've shown they can go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world and, at the very least, keep it close. "People back home would be shocked we were this good," Smith said. And while maintaining a realistic outlook, she's not shying away from Canada's upcoming quarterfinal against the Americans.
"There's a reason they play the game," Smith stated. "We have absolutely nothing to lose -- we've done our country proud already."
Brazil 78, Great Britain 66
It was the last game of pool play, and in addition, it was Great Britain's best chance of winning a game -- after a couple of very close calls -- against also-winless Brazil.
But the Brazilians, who came to London expecting much more, pulled ahead in the second quarter and steadily lengthened the margin to claim the victory. The key was the inside play of Erika de Souza and Cintia dos Santos, who combined for 32 points and 21 rebounds -- and de Souza handed out six assists as well. Adriana Pinto added 15 points and did a wonderful job running the offense, finishing with 12 assists and just two turnovers.
Natalie Stafford had 15 points and 11 rebounds for the British, who as always struggled to make shots, and Jo Leedham added 121. Julie Page finished with 11, but Great Britain simply lacked the firepower to consistently play with the other teams in Group B.
Turkey 70, Croatia 64
Quanitra Hollingsworth, a VCU alumna and former player for the New York Liberty, led Turkey with 14 points and six rebounds as the Turks edged Croatia 70-64 and moved on to the Olympic quarterfinals.
The game was close early on as Croatia closed the first quarter with an 8-2 run, including two three-pointers by Ana Lelas, to take an early 24-18 lead. It remained a tight game in the second quarter with a tie and three lead changes for a slight 33-31 advantage in favor of Turkey at the half. In the third quarter, though, Turkey opened up 16-point lead a by outscoring Croatia 25-13.
Turkey outrebounded Croatia 45-34 and totalled 12 second-chance points.
Croatia rallied to close the gap to a basket on a three-pointer by Iva Ciglar with 2:38 left in the game, but Turkey responded with back-to-back scores by Hollingsworth and Jelena Ivezic to keep Croatia at bay.
Czech Republic 82, Angola 47
Angola got within six points in the second quarter, but the Czechs then removed all doubt about the outcome by reeling off nine straight points and coasting home with the easy win against winless Angola.
Michaela Zrustova had 20 points for the winners, nailing four of seven three-pointers, and Eva Viteckova settled for 19 and didn't miss a shot.
Nacissela Mauricio had 18 for Angola and Nadir Manuel came off the bench with a double-double (10 points and 11 rebounds).
- Canada stuns Brazil to reach the knockout round; Chinese collapse against Turkey
- Cambage dunk makes Olympic history as Australia edges Russia, 70-66
- Four countries lock up quarterfinal spots after three games -- and Australia looks good as well
- France seals spot in Olympic quarterfinals with four point win over Canada
- France upsets Australia in overtime thriller
- China, France surprise on an interesting first day in London