Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi of Team USA battle Liz Cambage of Australia for the rebound (Photo courtesy of London 2012)
Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi of Team USA battle Liz Cambage of Australia for the rebound (Photo courtesy of London 2012)

London 2012: Will semis loss to the U.S. be the end of an era for Australian women's basketball?

Publisher
August 9, 2012 - 4:06pm
United States 86, Australia 73

LONDON -- Deep in the bowels of North Greenwich Arena, home to London 2012's men's and women's basketball contests in their knockout stages, in a rabbit warren known as the mixed zone, one of the few areas in the Olympic venues where athletes and the media are permitted to interact, Kristi Harrower stood crying.

And not just a tear or two dripping down her sweaty cheeks, but full-fledged sobs -- to the point where the Australian reporter standing next to me, as most of the press engulfed the handful of U.S. players who had made it past the broadcast access points, said he found himself choking up himself. As for myself, I felt so moved by Harrower's uncensored emotion that I contemplated risking my Olympic credential by reaching across the metal barricade that separated us and giving her a hug. Then, like a coward, I thought better of it, and allowed the scene to continue, one lonely woman standing there crying, some six or so of the rest of us, journalists, Australian team handlers, and Olympic volunteers alike, awkwardly shuffling from foot to foot and wondering what to do.

Harrower wasn't whining about her team's 86-73 defeat by the Americans, a loss that came after the Opals had outplayed the United States by virtually every measure for the first 20 minutes. Nor was she regretting her team's failure to game the system by losing their final preliminary round game, as Russia has all but confessed to doing, in an effort to avoid meeting the U.S. before the final. No, that would have been "un-Australian," as Harrower, team captain Lauren Jackson and Opals' coach Carrie Graf each independently described it when the question was put to them.

If Australia had to face the United States in the semifinal, they have only themselves to blame -- for having lost, in overtime, to France in the prelims, said Jackson. And if one of the best two teams in the world will now, as a result, have to play for the bronze, not gold or silver, in these Olympic Games, then it is because, despite Australia having given it their very best, the Americans were the better team Thursday, said a Jackson who has matured so much in the past 12 years she is all but unrecognizable as the brash teenager who once made headlines by relieving Lisa Leslie of her hair extensions during a game at the Sydney Olympics, then explaining that she thought it was a rat. She's just thankful to still have the opportunity to play for a medal of any color, said Jackson, and if the rest of the "girls," as she calls her teammates, are shattered, then as team captain, she'd better get down there and remind them there's another game left to be played.

No, Harrower's tears didn't arise out of collective or individual self-pity, but came as the 37-year-old point guard contemplated what she called "the end of an era" for Australian women's basketball. Her own 20-year-long career with the Australian National Team will come to a close Saturday, said Harrower, as will that of 29-year-old guard Jenny Screen, who first took the floor for the Opals at the junior level in 2001 and joined the senior team in 2005, and possibly that of 30-year-old Suzy Batkovic, an Opals' staple since 1999 except when injured, as well. Harrower has also watched such Australian stars as Tully Bevilaqua (Indiana Fever), Sandy Brondello (Seattle Storm 2003; Los Angeles Sparks assistant coach 2012), and Trish Fallon come and go. She was there for the end of Michelle Timms' career. Who knows whether Penny Taylor (Phoenix Mercury), who has been with the team since 2002 but kept out of these Games by a torn ACL, would be back, Harrower wondered aloud. She was just incredibly grateful and proud to have played alongside players of their caliber, and so many others, said Harrower.

"For me it's one more game and then that's the end of my Opal's career," said Harrower, struggling to regain her composure. "It's been 20 years. But you know what -- I have no regrets. We've been a successful team for such a long time, and I've just glad I've been a part of it. You know, to play with some of the players that I've played with over the time -- Penny Taylor and Lauren Jackson, two of the best players Australia has ever produced. People like Sandy Brondello and Rachel Sporn, that were so good for Australia and such positive people. To play with those type of people, I'm just very fortunate that I was part of that success that the Opals have had for the last -- what is it -- 12 years. It's been fun."

And then she dropped the bombshell no one was prepared for: "And Lauren, too. This could be the end for her as well," said Harrower, the statement triggering another bout of tears. Harrower's team handler cut things short at that point, so my newfound mates from the Australian press and I hurried back through the maze and upstairs to the press conference, hoping to put the question to Jackson herself.  

When the time came, Jackson demurred. Asked, "What are your thoughts about Rio in 2016," Jackon replied, "I don't know. I really don't know."

Then she added, with a tone of resignation, "I'm getting old. I don't know what I'm going to be doing in four years. I'm not really sure. We'll see." 

Old? Maybe in dog years. But Jackson's 31-year-old body has seen more than its share of wear and tear thanks to a year-round playing schedule divided among the WNBA, the Euroleague, the Australian league, and the Opals for whom she has played for 15 years. Time off has come only when she has been injured so badly she simply couldn't continue to play. And regrettably, that seems to be happening more and more frequently.

Then, too, there's the fact that Jackson may have accomplished just about all there is for her to achieve on the basketball court. The No. 1 draft pick of the WNBA in 2001, Jackson has taken her teams to championships on three continents, been not just an All-Star but the MVP of the WNBA (three times), Australia's WNBL (four times -- if you don't count the two others when she was named MVP of the WNBL Finals), the three-time recipient of the Maher Medal as the International Player of the Year in Europe. She's won gold at the World Championships in 2006 -- the only time Australia did not have to play the United States, which was knocked off in the semifinals by Russia.

She has three Olympic silver medals to her credit. And this year, she'll play for a fourth -- the bronze.

But this year was to be Australia's last best hope to beat out the United States for Olympic gold. So much so that every member of the team gave up her WNBA season or other plans to stay home and train with the team. This year, the Opals had the right combination of veteran leadership and youthful energy, the right mix of post strength and height on the one hand and guard speed and outside shooting on the other, to put the Americans on their heels. Add to that an unbroken span of time in which to both develop and practice team strategies and to mend bruised bodies from European league play -- an asset the U.S. was plainly not going to have with the Olympics falling smack in the middle of the WNBA season -- and this might just be the year for Australia to make its mark.

Australia suffered its first setback well before arriving in London, on March 29, when Taylor, the Opals' star forward and the MVP of the 2006 Women's World Championshps tore her ACL while playing for her Turkish team FenerbaƧhe. U.S. head coach Geno Auriemma (University of Connecticut head coach) commented on just how profound that loss had been:

"To Australia's credit..., they're missing a great, great, great player. You just have no idea what Penny Taylor does on that team, and the difference that she makes on that team. So for them to be in the position that they were, minus a player that I respect so much and think is a great player, that says a lot about them."

"Geno said it all," responded Graf. "We haven't been able to focus on Penny's injury; it happened months ago. But she's a world-class player. You talk about two [Australian] players who could play on the U.S. team -- that's Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor. And potentially Liz Cambage in the future. That's how good she is. When you take a player like that out of our team it's a big loss."

Nonetheless, the Australians buckled down and determined to replace the irreplaceable by having everyone do just a little bit more.

Next came the emotional upheaval of Opening Ceremonies and an unexpected preliminary-round loss to a spunky French team that has been the hot news of this tournament. Her selection to carry her country's flag in the Parade of Athletes at the Opening was a well-deserved honor for Jackson, but also one that moved her deeply. The announcement -- and even premature leaks -- led to a 72-hour media blitz that took its toll on the Aussie star, who was often near the point of tears herself when talking about her selection, which she called "the greatest honor of my life". The ceremonies always keep the athletes out late, and continuously on their feet, standing in stadium tunnels awaiting their turn to march onto the stadium track, then fighting traffic to get back to their living quarters in the wee hours of the morning, and the next night, Australia had the last game of the day, with a 10:15 p.m. tip time. That, too, turns into quite a late night for athletes who still have mixed zone broadcast and press interviews, a formal press conference, and if unlucky, a trip to anti-doping if they draw the short straw as their team's random selectee, all still ahead of them after the lights go out on the court. Though Australia won that match, 74-58, a British team riding the roar of the home crowds and guided by Jackson's longtime coach Tom Maher, gave the Opals a tougher time than might have been expected. Jackson seemed exhausted afterward. 

"I'm beat," she admitted to reporters, again close to tears despite logging a game-high 18 points and five boards in just 20 minutes on the floor. "I'm just ready to go to bed. It's been an emotional 48 hours."

"She's been playing on fumes," said Australian coach Carrie Graf, describing the "emotional roller coaster" of the previous few days for her star.

Two days later, Graf was resorting to the same metaphor after Australia's 74-70 overtime defeat by France. Not only had the loss been utterly unanticipated, but it transpired in a fashion that was just shy of cruel, after Australia had battled back from a deficit of as many as 13 points. Belinda Snell's impossible buzzer-beating Hail Mary to tie the score and send the game to extra minutes was the stuff of movie lore and had the Australians rejoicing on the sideline as though they had just won the World Cup. But five minutes later, the low had to be as deep as the high had just been lofty, when with Jackson and Liz Cambage both on the bench, fouled out of the game, the Opals went down to a four-point defeat. 

Jackson and Graf both appeared stoic in the face of the loss, fixated on looking no further than the game in front of them, until at the end of pool play, the draw, with a bit of gamesmanship from the Russians, put Australia on a collision course with the Americans in the semifinals. Even then, Australia had to get through a difficult quarterfinal challenge from China, in a game that went down to the final quarter before the Opals put it firmly in hand. And, though she modestly attempted to minimize it, both times she was told she'd set the all-time Olympic women's basketball scoring record, describing it as "something that is nice. This is a team sport, I can't be happy about something that is [an individual achievement], there had to be some emotional push and pull to the on-again, off-again nature of the record's announcement.

Coming into Thursday's matchup with the U.S., there was no brag nor bluster on Jackson's part, but neither was she giving anything away. While Graf chose to play her cards close to her vest, both Jackson and backup point guard Samantha Richards observed that the key to an Australian victory would be reining in the U.S. running game. Jackson noted that Australia had had to battle its way back from early deficits in one slugfest after another, stating: "We've had to come back a few times in this tourament. I think that we don't want it to be like that with the Americans because they're way too good for that. It's going to be a really interesting game in terms of how we respond to their running and their size whereas we've been playing a lot of shorter teams. It's going to be interesting to see how it pans out."

"Their defensive pressure is amazing," Jackson added of the Americans. "The key for us is to keep our composure and keep at it." 

Jackson had one more observation that seems prescient in retrospect. "Going to Liz obviously will help us all the time, but people scout that like they did last World Championships. We need to have other options as well. Everyone needs to step up."

Which brings us to Thursday evening where for 20 minutes, Cambage and Australia seemed to have their way with the U.S. The particulars of that game have been related elsewhere (see Clay Kallam, Team USA finally wears down Australia, advances to gold medal game); we won't repeat them all here.

Suffice it to say that for much of the first half, the Opals followed their game plan to a tee. Slow down the U.S. running game? Check -- Team USA had just four fast-break points in the opening half. Australia had none, but no matter -- they had established a tempo to their liking. Composure in the face of defensive pressure? Well, there the Aussies had it easy, because the vaunted U.S. defensive pressure was not much in evidence for the first two periods, especially in the low post where the Liz Cambage was putting on a one woman show. Cambage had racked up 19 points in the 16 minutes she played in the opening stanza, outscoring the entire U.S. frontcourt combined, as Tina Charles, Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles each had a go at it, but seemed totally incapable (and not particularly motivated) to move the Aussie off the block. The paint -- usually the Americans' long suit -- had turned into a 28-20 Australian advantage.

In fairness, Fowles has been nursing a sore foot that saw her sit out several preliminary-round games. We don't know how serious the injury is; we do know that she played only six minutes and change in the opening half, and just two minutes more the rest of the way. Several early whistles might also have encouraged the U.S. posts to back off a bit. But Parker wasn't being particularly aggressive on either side of the ball, putting up just four shots for as many points in the first half and all but rolling down the carpet to the hoop on defense. Fowles was being more aggressive in shooting the ball, but not particularly effective in netting them, taking eight shots in the half, all in the paint, and making just two of them. She was equally ineffectual on the defensive side of the ball.

For the first time in this tournament, the U.S. was not in control of the boards. At the break they enjoyed a one-rebound edge over the Australians in overall rebounding, and though they had beaten the Aussies, 11-6 on the offensive glass, Australia had matched them point for point in second-scoring at 10 points.

Australia led by seven midway through the second quarter, and though the U.S. pared that back to four, as they headed into the break with Australia on top, 47-43, cracks were beginning to show in Team USA's aura of invincibility. Though most of the players said afterward they hadn't been worried, Charles had a moment of truth when one reporter pointed out there is a difference between "worry" and "concern." 

"Were you at all concerned ?" the reporter then asked.

Charles shook her head. "I don't know what they're all saying," she responded, pointing to the other U.S. players in the mixed zone, "but this is my first time. I sure was."

What followed was a players-only "Come to Jesus" meeting in the locker room where team captains Tamika Catchings, Sue Bird (the only U.S. player to have accomplished much in the first half with 10 points and a steal) and Diana Taurasi took turns at attempting to ignite a fire under their teammates. 

"We came out, I don't think we were really focused," said Catchings. "We knew Australia was going to be a tough team. In that first half, I don't think we -- we gave them a lot of open looks. They just destroyed us," she said, repeating, "they just destroyed us."

"We came in at halftime and had a little heart to heart amongst each other without the coaching staff about just where we wanted to be. ..."

Asked for particulars, Catchings took a moment to find her words. "Well, you all know how Diana [Taurasi] is, so she put a little bit of extra motivation [into it], but each one of us -- Sue, Diana and I -- kind of stepped up and just talked about taking more pride in our defense. We knew Australia was going to be a tough game coming into it, and we knew we were going to have to have a little bit more focus. But we didn't feel like we came out overall as a team."

Speaking specifically of the Australian post game, Catchings explained, "We have to figure out a different way to defend them." The coaching staff called for a switch to a two-three zone and a lot more full-court pressure, she said, but in the end, it came down to the commitment of the players. "Just knowing that we had each other's back. Defense is what we're known for. When you have a team that's shooting 61 percent in the first half [as Australia did in the first half], that means your defense is slipping, and we talked a lot about what we needed to do on the defensive end."

Then U.S. head coach Geno Auriemma (University of Connecticut head coach) and his coaching staff got their turn. 

"We went in after half-time and we challenged our bigs to get out there because before, Australia was pushing us around."

As for the shift to the zone, Auriemma confided, "I'd love to say it was really strategic on my part, but it was more out of desperation. We couldn't guard her [Cambage]. There was nothing we could do. We had a couple of our bigs in foul trouble, and their two big guys were just killing us. So we had played it a little bit in this tournament and we were actually pretty good at it, not having spent much time at it. That, and making a couple of shots at the other end, proved to be the difference."

Whether born of genius, of desperation or of Taurasi's ability to apply a little extra motivation, it was a different U.S. team that took the floor in the second half. 

Taurasi led from the front. The U.S. had gone one-for-five from beyond the arc in the opening half, leaving Australia free to pack the paint. Only 20 seconds had ticked off the clock in the third period, before Taurasi took a feed from Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx) and knocked down the three, despite being knocked down herself in the process. Though she failed to convert the four-point play, it was now a one-point game.

But not for long. With far more pressure being exerted on her in the post, Liz Cambage coughed the ball up. Charles dropped in the layup at the other end to give the U.S. its first lead since the 4:05 mark in the first period. That advantage would be short-lived as Charles picked up her first foul of the game, sending Jackson to the line to tie the score with one of the pair, but it was worth the point to see a new, more aggressive Charles on defense. Two possessions later, it was Charles picking off a bad pass by Jackson, and though Taurasi turned it back over, she soon made up for it with her second trey in under two minutes.

The Taurasi three made the score, 51-48, in favor of the Americans, who would hold that lead until late in the third, when a Jackson three-pointer on an assist from Snell, followed by a short-range jumper by Batkovic put a 56-55 lead back in the hands of Australia.

Though there are many factors one could point to, that sequence may well have been the turning point in the game. Team USA's newfound aggressiveness had not been without cost. Taurasi picked up her fourth personal, an offensive foul, with more than three minutes to go in the third quarter. She had provided the spark for the Americans, and with Australia now back on top, some ballhandling errors beginning to show on the U.S. side, and Taurasi exiled to the sidelines, would the U.S. lose its momentum?

No, was the answer from Lindsay Whalen (Minnesota Lynx) who came off the bench and immediately knocked down a long jumper to give the U.S.  back a lead that it would not surrender for the remainder of the game. Whalen's deuce, turned into a singlehanded 6-0 run, and though Rachel Jarry would slice the U.S. lead to two, converting a traditional three-point play after Whalen fouled her on a layup, Charles, Seimone Augustus (Minnesota Lynx) and Whalen combined to add four more unanswered points, closing out the third period with the U.S. up, 65-59.

The U.S. commenced the final period on an 8-3 run interrupted only by a Harrower three that the Aussie had been quick to concede was a fortunate attempt to avoid a shot clock violation. Australia's young back-up point guard Samantha Richards tried to get the Opals back into it, knocking down a short jumper, but Sue Bird netted a three-pointer to regain a double-digit lead for the Americans with a little more than five minutes to go.

Most importantly for the Americans, neither Cambage nor Jackson was getting any easy looks. In fact, the U.S. held Cambage scoreless in the second half, while forcing her into four turnovers (seven for the game as a whole), allowing the U.S. to get some semblance of a running game going. 

They were also forcing Jackson and the Australian guards to do much more of the work. Jackson finished with a double-double of 14 points and 17 rebounds, but had an atypical four turnovers, all coming in the second half thanks to the stepped up defensive pressure. Cambage finished the night as Australia's high scorer, thanks to the 19 points she had racked up in the opening half, but her seven boards and two blocks were offset by seven turnovers. 

Harrower finished the night with 12 points including two three-pointers in three attempts, and Jenna O'Hea (Los Angeles Sparks) rounded out the double-digit scoring for Australia with 10 points, plus three assists and two blocks.

Taurasi and Charles jointly led the U.S. effort with 14 points apiece. Taurasi added five rebounds and an assist, but gave up three turnovers. Charles registered a double-double with 10 rebounds, plus four assists and two steals. Sue Bird finished with 13 points to go with four boards and two assists, in a game in which every U.S. player contributed something. Though Swin Cash did not play, Catchings said she contributed valuable advice from her observations on the bench, and Asjha Jones did not score in her limited minutes on the court, she helped to contain Cambage in the second half, and chipped in an assist, a steal, and a block for the American cause.

Quick though he might be to criticize, Auriemma is equally quick to give praise where due.

"Tina Charles had a great game," said Auriemma of her play in the second half. "I can't say enough about her. She was huge in there for us."

Without her job of shutting down Cambage in the second half of the game, it might be the Americans pulling out the crying towels tonight.

Auriemma also had high praise for the contributions of Whalen and Augustus off the bench in keeping the U.S. surge alive.

The statistic that might make all the Americans happiest, however, is the drop-off in Australian shooting in the second half. The Opals went from 61 percent field-goal shooting (20-33) in the first two quarters to just 26.4 percent (that's right -- 9-34) in the second half, and from two-of-five (40 percent) from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes, to 18.2 percent (2-11) in the last 20. A sign of the turnaround in the U.S. defensive intensity.

So at the end of the day, Team USA won, as most predicted, by 13 points, and on Saturday, Australia will play Russia for the bronze.

But is it the end of an era?

"No. We've got one more game left," said Jackson, when told of Harrower's comments, "so it's not quite the end of an era yet.

Turning more serious, Jackson, who had been quick to echo Catchings' sentiments about passing on the torch to the young talent coming through, "give them some advice and some pointers, and show them the way we play as Australians, added, "Look, obviously people are disappointed. But, again, the Americans are awesome, they're the top-shelf players in the world." Turning to Auriemma she said, "You've beat everybody by 30 points or more. We were able to keep 'em to 15 or something. I think that we did well. I've got to go down there and talk to the girls and tell them to keep their heads up. In 2010 [at the Women's World Championships], we lost in the quarterfinals and we weren't able to get the opportunity to play in the semifinals. So everyone has been through it before. 

"We've just got to sit back up and take it on the chin. ... Shit happens."

It will obviously be a huge setback for Australian basketball if Jackson chooses to retire. But mere minutes after a disappointing loss -- not to mention an emotional roller coaster of a week -- is a bad time to ask anybody their plans for the future.

And even Screen, sporting a cut under her eye that kept her off the floor in the second half, held out at least a slim possibility of having another go at the gold.

"I am close to 30 now and this is my second Olympics and and I would like to start a family but never say never," said Screen. "Wearing the green and gold [Australia's colors] is the best thing that can happen to a player."

"USA had to work for that game," said Harrower. "They had to work to win and they probably haven't had to do that all tournament. We gave everything that we've got. And that's what we said, 'We just want to fight for 40 minutes and make people around us, back home or friends and family that have followed us, to be proud of us. And we did that."