LONDON -- For the first time since the London 2012 Olympic women's basketball competition began here at the Basketball Arena in Olympic Park, Team USA came out firing on all cylinders. Though the United States has ultimately defeated each of its preliminary-round opponents by a wide margin, they have shown a propensity for lackluster starts, at times having to dig their way out of double-digit holes before taking over.
Not this time. After the U.S. ground out its 88-61 win over Czech Republic Friday, Team USA co-captain Tamika Catchings pledged that the U.S. would find a way to overcome its pattern of sluggish starts. The result: a 114-66 victory over China, a score that fell one point short of setting a new team record for points in an Olympic game, matching the team record set in a 114-92 victory over Spain in Barcelona 1992. In the process, the U.S. also established a new team record for assists in a game, with 33 assists (on 52 makes) against China, surpassing the prior record set against Brazil in 1996 in the Atlanta Games.
This time, the Americans knew they could ill afford another poor beginning. Both the players and the coaching staff knew well before tip-off that this would not be the same Chinese squad to whom they had handed a 100-62 shellacking in Seattle just two-and-a-half months ago. That Chinese team had been lacking two of its best players, point guard Lijie Miao, who has accounted for 10.3 points, more than seven assists and more than four rebounds per game since arriving here in London, and veteran Chen Nan, the leading scorer not only for her team but for the entire Olympic tournament at 18 points per game as well as China's top rebounder (7.5 rbg).
The solution, said assistant coach Doug Bruno (head coach, DePaul) in his scouting report, was on-ball pressure. "We bothered them with pressure in the first half in Seattle," said Bruno, "then we tested by playing without playing pressure against them in the second half. Turkey [who defeated China on Friday, 82-55] modeled that and did a good job against them with pressure. I think it's going to be important that we pressure. No matter where it is, ball pressure will be huge on the defensive side of the floor."
Team USA was having an excellent start offensively, shooting 50 percent or better from the field in every quarter, starting out with 64-percent (14-22) field-goal marksmanship in the opening period, as Taurasi put up 10 points in the first 10 minutes alone, and improving to a high of 79 percent (15-19) in the third. Still, Bruno told FullCourt.com he was not happy with what he was seeing on the defensive side of the ball in the early going. "We were putting points up," said Bruno. "We just weren't doing much about stopping them from doing the same thing."
China hung around for the first quarter, matching the U.S. point-for-point for the first five minutes, trading leads with the Americans four times, and remaining close throughout the period. In the final minute of the quarter, with the U.S. trailing by three, 28-25, Diana Taurasi combined with Angel McCoughtry for a 6-0 run, and when the buzzer sounded on the opening period, the Americans owned a 31-28 advantage they would never give up.
Over the break, the American coaching staff got its message across: They wanted pressure on the ball, and lots of it -- and for the next two periods, the Americans executed that game plan to near-perfection.
Full-court pressure. Half-court pressure. Unrelenting pressure, it all began to pay dividends as the Chinese coughed up one ball after another -- 15 of them in the first half alone -- fueling the American transition game. And just that quickly, the U.S. began to pull away, as the scoring spree continued with a 16-4 run to start the second quarter, in which the Americans held China to a mere eight points in the entire period, while putting 30 on the boards themselves.
McCoughtry, whose perfect eight-of-eight field-goal shooting for the night set another U.S. team record for Olympic play, also picked off four steals, and Taurasi four more, in the first half. Team USA collected 16 points off those steals and other turnovers, many of which numbered among the Americans' 16 first-half fast-break points. The U.S. also managed to exert that pressure without defaulting on the backboards. Despite the Chinese height, which rivaled and at some positions surpassed that of the Americans, the U.S. dominated the boards to the tune of 20 to 10 in the half, including nine offensive rebounds that resulted in 13 first-half second-chance points, to just two for Team China.
By the latter minutes of the first half, which ended with the U.S. on top 61-36 (very close to a record in its own right), we were beginning to see Showtime, replete with crowd-pleasing no-look and behind-the-back passes and one soaring fastbreak drive to the hoop after another.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Americans owned the paint, with 42 points in the paint to just 10 for China, in the opening half, while at the same time Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Maya Moore showed that when it came to a three-point game -- typically a strong suit for the Chinese -- the Americans had one too. They also showed that if this was a much improved Chinese team over what had been on display in Seattle, then Team USA had vastly improved in the interim as well.
The one downside to the U.S. pressure defense was fouls, but even that cost was minimal as compared to the benefits. The U.S. put China at the line 10 times in the first half, where they were good for seven points, while the U.S. got to the charity stripe only twice, knocking down both. But none of the Americans was in foul trouble, and even if they had been, U.S. head coach Geno Auriemma had a ready supply of All-Star reserves ready to take their places.
The same held true of the U.S. running game. The Americans ran continuously, rarely settling into half-court sets in the second and third periods. The effect was readily apparent when China took the floor in the third quarter. Rather than coming out of the locker room refreshed, the Chinese appeared ragged, and normally good shooters were starting to miss badly, some of their shots falling several feet short of the backboard, others wide off the mark, with the Chinese too exhausted to make any serious effort at rebounding. Meanwhile, Auriemma was able to keep a steady flow of fresh legs streaming onto the floor, often substituting by platoon, with no significant drop-off in talent in evidence.
Indeed, Candace Parker, who came off the bench for the second straight game while Moore got the starting nod, "changed the game," said Auriemma, explaining that the adjustment to the rotation gives him three strong shooters in the starting lineup. "I have always liked having three shooters in the lineup. ... To start the game with Sue [Bird], Diana [Taurasi] and Maya [Moore], we have three great three-point shooters and that spreads the defense out and allows more room inside."
Meanwhile Auriemma was pleased with the impact Parker has been making coming off the bench.
"Whoever she plays against is going to be tired," Auriemma noted, and in this game, Parker took full advantage, posting 10 points, pulling down six boards, dishing out four assists, grabbing a steal and swatting down a block in less than 15 minutes on the court.
"Maybe she's pissed at me [for taking away her starting spot] and that's why she's playing like that," Auriemma quipped after the game. "I'm okay with that."
By the end of the third period, in which the U.S. allowed only 12 points from China, while tacking on another 33 of its own, the game was beyond redemption for the Chinese, who have to be credited for their valiant effort to hold their heads up and keep plugging away at a by now hopeless situation. The third period ended with the Americans just shy of the century mark -- a benchmark they would surpass only a few minutes later -- at 94 points; China had scored 48 points to its credit.
With the game so far out of reach, the U.S. began to slow things down a bit, and one saw what might have been -- had the Americans forgone the pressure. China's Shuang Zhao, Xiaoyun Song and Zengyu Ma combined for four three-balls in seven attempts (57 percent), fueling an 18-point surge in the final period, as the U.S. relaxed perhaps a bit too much on defense. Meanwhile, the American's own scoring pace slackened to 20 points in the fourth quarter and a bit of sloppiness began to creep into an otherwise beautiful game, with errant passes, bad shots, and rebounding errors beginning to take over late in the third period and on into the fourth.
Still, with a final score of 114-66, it would have been poor form for the U.S. to have run it up further; they had nothing left to prove. "Once it got to a point where the game was over, there was no point in running transition basket after transition basket," said Auriemma. "You're not going to win an Olympic gold-medal just running up and down the floor," he added, observing that his players needed to learn to execute well in the half-court as well, something they have not yet had much opportunity to work on.
Auriemma had been unaware that his team had been within one point of breaking its own Olympic scoring record: "I had no idea," Auriemma said, adding that "even if somebody told me about it I couldn't care less." Hearkening back to his experience at UConn, Auriemma recounted how when he pulled a Husky player out of a game, assistants would sometimes tell him the player was close to a record. That was no reason to send the player back in, Auriemma explained -- if they hadn't broken the record by that point, they hadn't broken the record.
By game's end, the Americans had shot 63 percent (52-83) from the field and 53 percent (eight-of-15) from beyond the arc, while holding the Chinese to 41 percent (24-59) field-goal and 50 percent (eight-of-20) three-point shooting. The U.S. owned the boards, with a 46-20 overall rebounding advantage and an 18-7 edge on the offensive glass, from which they garnered 21 second-chance points to just two for the Chinese. They controlled the paint to the tune of 82-18. They had grabbed 14 steals and pushed the Chinese into 21 turnovers, from which they gleaned 28 points to just 14 points for China from the USA's 14 turnovers.
With six Americans finishing in double digits, Taurasi led the way for the Americans with 22 points on eight-of-10 field-goal shooting, including four-of-five from downtown; she also dished out two assists and roped in four steals.
"She's being more aggressive," said Bird of her U.S. and former college teammate. "It's tough on a team sometimes when you have so many great players. We have a tendency to over-pass and be very unseflish. Diana, for us, has to be someone who is very aggressive."
For her part, Taurasi said she was just following orders: "When I'm open, I'm under strict orders to shoot. I'm just going along with orders," she said, noting that the U.S. has "probably had a [different] leading scorer in each of the five games. That's what it's about. ... Everybody has to bring it every night."
McCoughtry also put on another high-energy performance, logging 15 points, six rebounds, six assists, five steals and even a block. Moore added 12 points, including two of five from beyond the arc, plus seven boards two assists and a steal, and Tina Charles (Connecticut Sun) also registered 12 points, plus five rebounds and two assists; and Lindsay Whalen had another strong game with 10 points, four assists and two steals (but four turnovers).
Tamika Catchings, who has been moved to the four-spot in the realignment, didn't do much scoring this evening, putting up only two points, but she made herself a facilitator handing out a team-high seven assists plus three rebounds and a block.
In other good news for the U.S.A., Sylvia Fowles, who hasn't played in the past three games while resting a sore left foot, entered the game in the second period, playing for a little more than nine minutes. Though she only recorded six points in the span, she also grabbed three rebounds and delivered two massive swats.
Veteran center Chen Nan led the way for China with 15 points, three rebounds and two assists; Song Xiaoyun followed with 15 points, and four assists; and Ma Zengyu tacked on 13 points, three rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block, but three turnovers.
With the win, the United States became one of just two undefeated teams moving on to the Olympic quarterfinals where they will face Canada on Tuesday. None of the Americans was looking past its quarterfinal opponent.
"We feel great about coming first in our group," said Bird. "We know the Games are really just starting now. We know now it's one and done and we have to take care of business."
Bird relished the way the U.S. was beginning to gel as a team, as evidence by its success against China in today's game. "The score tells one story, but for us it's about how we played. It was one of our better games, score aside. It felt very cohesive out there."
Looking ahead, Bird observed, "Canada is a very tough team. People underestimate them. I played against them this year with my [professional club] team. We had a scrimmage and I can tell you they're not easy to play against."
Taurasi agreed: "Canada are a tough team. They beat you up."
Turkey, finishing second in Pool A will meet Russia, the third-place finisher from Group B, while China, which fell to third place in Group A with today's loss, will meet Australia, Group B's second-place finisher. France, undefeated in Group B pool play and the top seed from that Group, takes on the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.
- Last day of pool play settles quarterfinal matchups
- Slow start, strong finish: Team USA blows away Turkey, 89-58
- U.S. overcomes slow start to crush Czech Republic
- 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
- Parker's record setting performance leads Team USA past Angola
- Croatia makes Team USA work in Olympic opener
- France upsets Australia in overtime thriller
- China, France surprise on an interesting first day in London