LONDON -- Pierre Vincent has been thinking about it for nearly five years, since he took the reins of the French Women's National Basketball Team in February 2008. The Olympics. Vincent had taken a French men's team led by Tony Parker to gold in the 2000 European Championships and after switching to women's basketball in 2003, he guided his club team Bourges Basket to the domestic grand slam in 2006 and to the Euroleague Women's Final Four in 2007. But this time, his goals were more modest.
The French women, once a force in European basketball, had been to the Olympics just once (Sydney 2000), where they lost in the quarterfinals to finish, out of the medals, in fifth place. They failed to qualify for the Athens Olympics in 2004. And they not only failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they had failed even to qualify for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. His mandate: To get France back to the Olympics.
France won Euro gold under Vincent's leadership in 2009. It was a good start, but not enough. "We were still thinking about these Games," he stated. Only a return to the Olympic stage would do.
Edwige Lawson-Wade (San Antonio Silver Stars 2010) has been thinking about it for months now, even as she was earning French MVP honors while playing for Lattes Montpellier in the Euroleague Women this winter. As the season went on and key players from international power teams fell to injury -- Maria Stepanova lost to the Russians, Penny Taylor to Australia -- the idea began to cross her mind: Could France do more than just qualify for London 2012?
Indeed, they could. With their 81-64 upset of Russia in Thursday night's semifinal guaranteeing no worse than a silver-medal finish, the French have accomplished more than they could ever have imagined. Saturday night, as they take the court against the United States, France will play its first-ever Olympic final and take home its first-ever Olympic medal in women's basketball. They will also become the first team ever to medal after qualifying for the Olympic field via the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, where the French earned their Olympic berth last month.
"Magic" is a word that comes up repeatedly.
It was the word French captain and point guard Celine Dumerc to describe her team's perfect 5-0 record in the preliminary rounds of these Games, with improbable victories over Australia and Russia propelling them into the quarterfinals as the top seed from Group B. It was the word she used again to describe her huge go-ahead three in the final minute on Tuesday, capping her team's long march back from a 13-point deficit to a 71-68 quarterfinal victory over the Czech Republic.
"I still have Olympic rings in my eyes" from the Opening Ceremonies, said Dumerc.
They all do, said Lawson-Wade Thursday. "We are all possessed by Olympic magic," she said. "Celine [Dumerc] gets the fire every game. [Emilie] Gomis had it against Australia. We are all carried on by some magic force of the Olympics. It makes you do something you would not be able to do on any other day."
On Thursday night, that Olympic fire carried the French past Russia, the European champions and three-time defending Olympic bronze medalists. They had met Russia once previously, on the final day of pool play, winning that match, 65-54, but the French coach and players were the first to suggest that Russia had not really been trying to win that game.
This time, they knew they would be seeing the best Russia had to offer. But by now, the possibility of a trip to the finals was an idea beginning to cross the minds of the entire French team.
Gomis got the ball rolling for France, igniting an 8-0 run over the game's first two-and-a-half minutes, as the French time and again penetrated an incredibly permeable Russian defense for one layup after another. Nadezhda Grishaeva finally got Russia on the scoreboard make the second of a pair of free-throws, and after Dumerc dropped in yet another French layup, Grishaeva netted one of her own for Russia's first field goal at the 6:23 mark of the first quarter.
Russia gradually began to stiffen its defense and eat into the 10-3 French lead, but already there were signs of trouble, as the bulk of the Russian scoring was coming from the free-throw line. Becky Hammon (San Antonio Silver Stars) finally knocked down Russia's second field goal six minutes into the period, but quickly followed that up with a three-pointer to cut the French lead to two (10-12).
But that served only to spark a 6-0 French run, and though Russian center Natalya Vieru tipped in an offensive rebound to stop the hemorrhaging with a minute to go in the quarter, in the time remaining Endene Miyem took a feed from Lawson-Wade and knocked down a long jumper and then Lawson-Wade capitalized on a Vieru turnover to close out the quarter with a three.
That left the French up nine, 24-15, at the end of one. A nice lead, but certainly not a secure one, given the Russians' reputation as a strong three-point shooting team. But on this night, Russia wasn't shooting all that well from anywhere on the floor. Another Lawson-Wade trey took France to its highest lead of the first half, 14 points (29-15), less than three minutes into the second quarter. It took Russia most of the rest of the period to trim the lead back to single digits, leaving France still holding a seven-point advantage, 38-31, heading into the break.
To that point, Russia had shot just 38 percent from the field (10-26), even including their four-of-nine (44 percent) from long range. The usually dominant post power had been out-rebounded 15-9 by the French. Meanwhile, the French were shooting an efficient 56 percent (15-27) from the floor and 50 percent (three-of-six) from the arc.
The first five minutes of the third quarter saw Russia make its move, as Vieru, Hammon, Alena Danilochkina and Natalya Vodopyanova combined for a 9-4 run that cut the French lead to just two points, 42-40. Hammon actually had a chance to give Russia the lead, but her corner three misfired.
Though Gomis then hit from downtown, Hammon fed Vodopyanova for a layup to make it 45-42, France, at the halfway mark of the quarter. Dumerc and Russia's Marina Kuzina traded three-balls, and after Isabelle Yacoubou and Lawson-Wade had built the French lead back to seven points, Kuzina knocked down her second trey in the span of one minute to cut it back down to three points (53-50) once again. But each time Russia seemed to be making inroads, one of the French would respond to keep the French advantage intact. Over the final minute of the quarter Sandrine Gruda converted a traditional three-point play and Dumerc served up what has become one of her specialties -- a buzzer-beating three-pointer -- to close out the quarter with France still up b eight, 59-51.
As the final quarter opened, Miyem quickly restored the French to a double-digit lead with a pair from the line and Gruda pushed the gap to 12 points on a fast-break layup just two-minutes into the fourth quarter. Danilochkina cut it to nine with a pair at the charity stripe at the 7:44 mark.
But that was the last time the Russians would move the scoreboard for the next four minutes, as Russia, including even Hammon, fired up miss upon miss, while France charged off on an 11-0 run that swelled the lead to 20 points, 76-56. Over the remaining three-and-a-half minutes, Russia would chip away around the fringes, without making any significant headway at eroding the lead. Dumerc's third trey of the night sliced the nets with 26 seconds left, and though Russia would have the final bucket, as Natalya Zhedik dropped in a layup , France would win the day in convincing style, 81-64.
The celebration was a pure outpouring of joy as French players leaped into each other's arms. They remained on the court for a good 10 minutes after the Russians had departed, joining hands in a circle, dancing and singing "La Marseillaise" as their fans joined in.
Only Danilochkina and Hammon finished in double digits for Russia with 13 points apiece. Danilochkina added five rebounds, three assists and a steal, but coughed up three turnovers, while Hammon contributed five assists,plus two boards, for the Russian team whose shooting had eroded to just 36 percent (21-59) from the field and 39 percent (seven of 18) by game's end.
Meanwhile, six French players posted double-figure scores, led by Lawson-Wade with 18 points, on four-of-six from the field, a perfect four-of-four from the arc, and another perfect six-of-six from the foul line. She also tacked on five assists, three rebounds and a steal. Gomis contributed 15 points; Gruda and Dumerc added 11 each, with Gruda notching a game-high (tied with Russia's Vieru) eight rebounds and Dumerc handing out three assists. Yacoubou and Miyem chimed in with 10 points apiece, with Yacoubou tacking on four rebounds.
France shot an impressive 54 percent (28-54) from the field, 57 percent (eight of 14) from long-range and 89 percent (17-19) from the penalty stripe, while controlling the paint (26-18) and maintaining a modest edge on the boards (34-31).
"Our defense couldn't keep up with Dumerc," said Danilochkina. "We didn't perform very well. We should have won this game and probably should be in the final, but now we will make our best effort against Australia [in the bronze-medal game]. We want to leave here with a medal."
Hammon blamed her team's own poor shooting for the loss. France "are a very good team, they're playing very well right now. They're playing very confident," she said. "We just didn't have enough firepower."
"We've got good shooters," she added, "but you got to make them when the lights come on."
"You could go down a list of things we didn't do," Hammon continued. "We just didn't play very well. I wish the outcome was different, but that's the way it goes in basketball. We wanted to win this game, as you're guaranteed some kind of medal. We're going to fight like hell to get a bronze."
Hammon had said earlier that this was likely to be her last game for the Russian National Team and she telegraphed that same message on Thursday night, when she observed that Russia's future looked bright. "This is a very young team; it's going to get better and better," Hammon stated. "This is a completely different team than we had in Beijing. I wish I had another chance, but that's too bad."
Meanwhile, the French returned to their theme of magic, determined to relish the moment. "A few months ago, we could not have imagined we would be here," said Florence Lepron. "The Russians were very relaxed, as they thought they were only playing the French. The win today is magnificent and enormous. Lots of work has gone into this. We have given our all. Our coach is a magician."
As for the magician coach, asked his plans for preparing to meet the Americans in the final, Vincent replied, "I am going to party!"
"This is an exceptional moment in time for us," he went on to explain, "and we have to make the most of it. We will chill out. Then we will do our preparatory work."
But Vincent did not have to tell his player's to enjoy the moment -- they already were. "It is amazing," exclaimed Gomis. "It's a dream! I am so happy for the French people and my family back in France. We are so happy right now."
"We met Russia and we beat them twice," Dumerc recounted. "We met Australia and we beat them. It's sport. Maybe tomorrow if we play Australia or Russia we would lose. The day that we had to do it, we did. That's not easy to do. I'm very proud that we did," said Dumerc, adding that the women had dedicated their win to the French men's team, who lost Wednesday in their quarterfinal with Spain. "We follow them. They follow us," she said of the men, who were present en masse and joined in the women's victory celebration. "We played tonight to show them that we are proud of them. Maybe now women are in the spot light, but we will not forget them."
Looking ahead to Saturday's final with the Americans, Dumerc said, "I am very proud that the women's team for the first time in history will reach the final ...We're very proud to face the USA. Our chances are not huge, but we are honored to play them."
"I feel so good," said Yacoubou. "Olympics! I am going to wake up tomorrow and think, 'Did we win?'"
The opportunity to play in the final means everything to Yacoubou and her teammates. "It is important," she said. "People are starting to talk about us, especially in France, as basketball players, as women. No one talked about us before, even when we were European champions in 2009. I t means a lot. We want to prove everything and have no regrets."
Yacoubou, too, acknowledged that her team's chances in the final were not great, but didn't care. "That's a bonus," she said of playing the Americans. "They're the best team. We have nothing to lose. We are in the Olympics. We can dream here. I want to keep on dreaming. We'll put the ball inside, shoot outside. We want to have fun -- that's the most important thing."
Lawson-Wade was looking back to the moment when Vincent had embued her with the Olympic dream. "I remember four years ago when I decided to take a break from the national team, Pierre Vincent called me talking about the Olympics, and I thought, 'I am going to be too old for the London Olympics. I don't think I would still be playing. I want to have kids.' Today I am 33 years old, I am still playing, loving the game. I feel great. Wow! I can enjoy every moment."
"I will cry the rest of the night with joy," she continued. "Little by little, step by step, we've been working the last two years to make it to the final of the Olympic Games and be sure that we're going to win a medal. It is impossible to describe it with words. Maybe it's happiness, adrenaline, everything. We showed the world that we know how to play basketball, that we are united, we like each other and we believe in us."
Looking ahead to the upcoming final against the United States, Lawson-Wade started out with a realistic appraisal of her team's chances of departing with the gold. "We know that USA is so good," she said. "Every position, every player they have, can play really well. To beat the USA you had to do the perfect game. Perfect in defense. Perfect in offense."
Then she remembered the magic. "It's something that happens once every few years, but it happens," she pointed out. "So anything is possible. So we're going to play that game to win."
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