LONDON -- Olympic newcomer Turkey battled its way back from a 12-point second-quarter deficit to Russia to take a narrow lead early in the fourth period over the world's No. 2 women's basketball team -- only to see its Olympic dreams extinguished by a triad of errors in the final 13 seconds of its quarterfinal match Tuesday.
With the 66-63 victory at the Basketball Arena in Olympic Park , Russia advances to the semifinals of the Olympic women's basketball competition on Thursday when it will face a rematch with France, to which it lost in the final game of pool play. Meanwhile, despite its disappointment over its breakdown in the game's final minute, Turkey will head home with the knowledge that it has established itself on the world stage as a force to be reckoned with.
Turkey, which made some noise at the 2011 European championship before being defeated by Russia in the gold-medal round, 59-42, put on an impressive performance in pool play at the London 2012 Olympic Games, emerging as the No. 2 team in Group A with just one loss, to four-time defending Olympic champion Team USA. Advancing to the quarterfinals, the Turks were paired against Russia, whose players stopped just short of admitting what many believed anyway -- i.e., that they had engineered their own defeat by France on Sunday so as to finish third in Group B, thereby avoiding a potential matchup with the United States before the final round.
"It was our goal not to match up with the USA in the quarterfinal or semifinal. We have done our best in the group stages to make sure we didn't match up with them early. It makes it easier but it's going to be a battle regardless of who we face. I don't know which one [the United States or its semifinal opponent Australia] I would choose," said Russia's Anna Petrakova.
"We weren't happy with the way we played against France, but at the same time we weren't kicking ourselves," admitted Becky Hammon (San Antonio Silver Stars), a native-born American who was naturalized as a Russian citizen so she could play for the Russian National Team. "We didn't want to be the No. 2 seed. We knew it was in our hands, and if we won by five, we could be the No. 1 seed, but we didn't want to be No. 2. We are happy with No. 3 -- it's a good matchup."
Those were dangerous admissions at an Olympic Games where four badminton pairs teams were disqualified for "failing to use their best efforts" after attempting to lose late preliminary-round games in an effort to manipulate their quarterfinal seedings to their ultimate advantage. A ninth athlete, Algerian runner Taoufik Makhloufi, was also ejected from the Games after officials accused him of "failure to compete honestly by making a bona fide effort" in his 800-meter heat, but was subsequently reinstated and went on to win gold in Tuesday's 1,500-meter final. Makhloufi had already qualified for the 1,500-meter final, where the middle-distance runner had his best chance of medaling, and wanted to withdraw from his 800-meter heat. After being told the Algerian federation had missed the deadline for withdrawal and that he would be disqualified from all further competition if he failed to run his 800-meter heat, Makhloufi took his place at the starting line, ran less than a lap, then dropped out, crossing the center field of the track and standing at the finish line to cheer on his competitors, thus leading to the referee's initial ruling. But Olympic organizers subsequently rescinded the disqualification after the Algerian federation appealed, presenting a certificate from a London Organizing Committee medical officer confirming that Makloufi had a left knee injury that "troubled" him but that could clear up, allowing him to compete.
The Makhloufi incident shows just how difficult it is to prove charges of insufficient effort. At present, despite the suspicions of the French coach and players that Russia took a powder, as well as the admissions of the Russian athletes conerning their motives, there is no indication that any disciplinary action against Russia is under consideration.
In any event, the Russians were plainly making a bona effort in their quarterfinal match-up with the Turks, who took a four-point lead (11-7) midway through the opening period on a layup by captain Nevriye Yilmaz (San Antonio Silver Stars 2004). Russia quickly responded with a 14-2 run, holding Turkey to a single field goal for four of the last five minutes of the opening quarter. Birsel Vardarli broke the Turkish scoring drought, knocking down a three-pointer with 53 seconds remaining in the first quarter, but a pair from the charity stripe by Russia's Natalya Vieru saw the first period end with Russia up, 23-16.
Turkey began the second quarter on a sour note, missing all of its shots in the first four minutes, including two easy layups, and turning the ball over twice while Hammon dropped in a layup, then followed that up by draining a three, to expand the Russian lead to 12 (28-16) just a minute into the second period.
But with 6:09 remaining in the half, Yilmaz launched a one-woman rally, following up a short jumper with a three-pointer to cut the Russian lead back to single digits (28-21). After Hammon drove the lane for a layup, the Turkish surge resumed, with Emine Tugba Palazoglu knocking down a three, and Yilmaz netting back-to-back jumpers, interrupted only by a pair of free throws by Vieru, shaving the Russia lead to four, 32-28.
Petrakova closed out the half with a layup on an assist from Irina Osipova, and the two teams headed to the locker room with Turkey trailing by six, 34-28.
One of Turkey's biggest difficulties throughout the first half was its rebounding disadvantage, where the Russians managed to control the boards by a 21-15 margin in the opening half. The Turks improved on this area in the second half, rebounding evenly with their Russian opponents to finish with a 33-21 rebounding margin in Russia's favor.
Moreover, the Russian defense gave the Turks precious few open looks, with Turkey shooting just 36 percent (12-33) from the field and 36 percent (four-of-11) from beyond the arc, while Russia was connecting at a rate of 45 percent (13-29) from the floor, including 50 percent (four-of-eight) from beyond the arc.
The two teams spent much of the third period trading baskets, with neither side gaining much traction until midway through the quarter when Esmeral Tuncluer drained a three on a dish from Vardarli to cut the Russian advantage to three, 42-39. After Korstin netted one of two from the foul line, it was Tuncluer's turn to feed Vardarli for a three-ball that made it a one-point game, 43-42, with three-and-a-half minutes to go in the period.
Petrakova quickly undid Turkey's progress with a pair of three-pointers, but Yilmaz answered with a pair of layups, and after being fouled in the process of the second of the two, converted the traditional three-point play to keep Turkey within two.
After Korstin stretched the Russian lead to four with a layup, Quanitra Hollingsworth (Virginia Commonwealth) took over where Yilmaz had left off, netting back-to-back layups, both on assists from Vardarli, to close out the third quarter with the score tied at 51 apiece.
The game's final 10 minutes continued in the same vein, with Hollingsworth knocking down one of a pair from the penalty stripe to give the Turks their first lead since early in the opening period, and Yilmaz netting a midrange jumper to make it 54-51, Turkey. But Vieru and Hammon took those points right back with a layup from the former and Hammon draining a three-pointer to hand the lead back to Russia, 56-54.
A pair from the line by Tuncluer once again knotted the score at 56, but a Vieru layup and a midrange jumper from Russian captain Irina Osipova once again handed a four-point edge to Russia. But the Turks were determined not to let the game get away from them, as Hollingsworth and Tuncluer once again combined to tie the score at 60 with under four minutes to go.
Neither side was shooting the ball particularly well by this point of the game, but Russia was faring the better of the two, as Korstin took an Osipova assist in for a layup to hand a two-point lead to Russia just outside the three-minute mark. Only 28 ticks remained by the time a Vardarli layup tied the score for the final time.
And that's when the constellation of errors, most of them attributable to inexperience, conspired to deprive the Turks of their hopes of a medal.
First, out of a Russian timeout, with 13 seconds to go, Hammon drove the lane for two. It couldn't have been more clear in whose hands the ball was likely to be placed had Russian coach Boris Sokolovskiy advertised the play he'd drawn up in flashing lights on the jumbotron. Hammon had a team-high 19 points to her credit and had been the Russians' go-to player for most of the evening and, in fact, for much of the preliminary rounds as well. But though Turkey had made much of its progress after double-teaming Hammon late in the first half, on this play, she couldn't have been left any more wide-open -- after jinking once, she just steam-rolled her way straight to the hoop as though Turkey had cleared the path for her.
"We counted on Becky to make some sort of play," explained Petrakova later. "She's our best pick-and-roller and maybe the best in the world. She did what she does best as she proved against Canada where she made a basket at the end of the game."
Turkish coach Ceyhun Yildizoglu said he'd seen the play coming. "We made a really big mistake. Russia used the mistake against us. .... We made a grave mistake when Hammon drove to the basket with 20 [sic] seconds left. We had spoken about this at the timeout."
But his players had been unable to stop her.
Despite the absence of any apparent defensive effort targeting Hammon, Yilmaz still managed to get herself called for the foul, but Turkey caught a break as Hammon sent up a rare miss from the line.
They caught a second break when Vieru fouled Hollingsworth, sending her to the free-throw line with 13 seconds still to go and an opportunity to tie the score. But Hollingsworth, making her first appearance for the Turkish National Team in these Games, missed the first, then sank the second, leaving it a one-point game in Russia's favor and forcing the Turks to foul to stop the clock.
Turkey still had a chance, as Osipova made her first but missed the second, but in big mistake No. 3, Turkey failed to rebound, the ball went out of bounds off Hollingsworth's leg, and Russia regained possession.
Again, Turkey fouled, this time sending Evgenia Belyakova to the line. Again, the Russian shooter made only one of the pair, prompting Hammon to observe, "We have got to start shooting better than 50-percent from the free-throw line."
This time, with Belyakova missing the first of her penalty shots and sinking the second, Turkey recover possession of the dead ball, with 10 seconds remaining, and a final opportunity to tie the score with a three-pointer.
But in Turkey's final mistake of the closing seconds, Vardarli allowed too much time to run off the clock and then heaved up an off-balance three-pointer that was way off the target. Game, set and match to the Russians.
Yilmaz finished with a game-high 22 points, plus six boards, for Turkey, while Vardarli and Hollingsworth tacked on 12 points apiece. Vardarli added six assists and a steal to her night's tally, while Holingsworth grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot, but committed three turnovers.
Hammon led Russia with 19 points and five assists. Three others -- Belyakova, Vieru and Petrakova -- chipped in 10 points apiece, with Belyakova added five rebounds and two assists, Vieru tacking on four rebounds, an assist and a block, and Petrakova contributing a game-high seven boards plus four assists.
The Turks were so disheartened by the loss, none stopped in the mixed zone to speak with reporters. But Turkey has plenty to be proud of, as both coaches rightly observed.
"I think today was a really hard game," said Russia's Sokolovsky. "I was playing close attention to Turkey. My colleague has made progress with them, each time using all the potential."
Petrakova agreed. "I did not know what to expect from Turkey. I knew they were strong and had beat numerous teams here. They proved that they were very strong but we stayed together, had that team spirit, and supported one another through the mistakes."
"I've been with this team for five years," said Yildizoglu. "In those five years it's good to make the Turkish people proud of us. I believe in the future we'll do great things."
Up next for Russia is a semifinal date with France, which rallied to slip by the Czech Republic in the final game of the night, and an opportunity to show what they can do when they're actually trying to win.
- Olympic quarterfinals preview: Much will be revealed in Tuesday's first knockout games
- Last day of pool play settles quarterfinal matchups
- Canada stuns Brazil to reach the knockout round; Chinese collapse against Turkey
- 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
- 2012 London: Turkey -- Plenty of size, but shooters are the key
- London 2012: Russia -- As usual, an enigma