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U.S. Women Survive in Basketball

September 27, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ Bodies bumped and crashed to the floor. Elbows flew. Only Lisa Leslie’s cool head and quick reaction kept an ugly game from getting worse.

This was not the type of basketball the U.S. women’s team came to the Olympics to play. But play it they did, overcoming a physical Slovakian slowdown to move within one victory of a berth in the gold medal game.

Leslie’s timely shooting and peacemaking helped the United States to a 58-43 victory Wednesday in the lowest scoring game ever played by a U.S. team in the Olympics.

Remember that awful Michigan State-Wisconsin game in the NCAA tournament last March? This was just like it. With all the bumping and grinding going on, it was a gargantuan task just to make a basket.

``They were just going out and playing hard,″ U.S. forward Natalie Williams said. ``This was their chance to go at the United States, a chance for them to go to the medal round. They played tough. I felt like I had people climbing on me all night.″

Williams survived intact. DeLisha Milton wasn’t so lucky.

With about 4 minutes left, Slovakia’s Renata Hirakova had the ball near the U.S. basket as her team was heading up the floor. When Milton approached from behind, Hirakova let go of the ball with her right hand and swung her elbow, which caught Milton smack in the face and dropped her to the floor.

The officials called a foul but did not rule it flagrant. Milton is one of the most pleasant, easygoing players on the team, but she got up with fire in her eyes and started toward Hirakova. But Leslie bear-hugged her from behind and calmed her down.

``I told DeLisha I realized she got hit, but she had to control herself,″ said Leslie, who led the United States with 18 points.

``We’re at the Olympics. If we were anywhere else, we would have taken care of her. She really kept her composure. She calmed down once she looked at our bench and saw the red, white and blue.″

The United States was leading 51-40 at the time and desperately trying to put the game away. Whether the elbow had anything to do with it or not, the Americans scored the next six points to wrap it up. Good-bye Slovakia. Hello South Korea.

What? South Korea? Yikes. The pesky South Koreans gave the United States fits with their perpetual motion offense in the first game of the preliminary round before the Americans won 89-75.

Now they’ll meet again in Friday’s semifinals, with the winner advancing to Saturday’s gold medal game. Australia plays Brazil in the other semifinal.

``We played them once already so at least we have that one under our belt to know what we’re up against,″ U.S. coach Nell Fortner said. ``It’s good because their style is certainly different than anybody else in this tournament.″

The Koreans like to play fast, which is just the opposite of Slovakia, which tried to slow the pace because it could not match the United States’ athleticism. The idea was to keep it ugly and the Slovakians succeeded.

The United States, which had been averaging 87 points a game, shot 41 percent. The 58 points were the fewest ever scored by a U.S. women’s team in the Olympics and by a wide margin. The fewest previously came in the 1992 gold medal game, a 77-70 victory over Yugoslavia.

``They brought the level of the game down,″ said Yolanda Griffith, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds. ``We started taking some shots we probably should have thought about and played right into their hands. They got the rebound and got a lot of offensive boards and got back into the game.″

That happened after a 16-1 run had put the United States ahead 26-9. Blowout, here we come. Or so the Americans thought.

Slovakia scored 13 of the next 14 points and trailed just 27-22. The United States needed Ruthie Bolton-Holifield to bank in a 3-pointer _ no, she didn’t call it _ just to lead 31-23 at halftime.

Enter Leslie, the slender 6-foot-5 center who doesn’t need to stay near the basket to be effective. She made three long jump shots, two with her feet straddling the 3-point arc, as the lead grew to 42-27. In a game like this, that was big enough.

Even the Slovakian athletes who cheered and spun noisemakers all game long weren’t enough to bring their team back.

``I don’t think we’ll see another game played like that again,″ Leslie said.

Her teammates can only hope she’s right.

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