Women’s Hoops: U.S. 58, Slovakia 43
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ First she did it with her scoring, then with her composure.
Lisa Leslie gave the U.S. women’s basketball team just what it needed to its lowest-scoring game in Olympics history.
The 6-foot-5 center from the Los Angeles Sparks hit three jump shots from 15 feet and beyond early in the second half to help the United States shake off Slovakia 58-43 in an ugly game Wednesday and move into the semifinals of the Olympic tournament.
Leslie also played peacemaker, keeping teammate DeLisha Milton from going after a Slovakian player who had elbowed her in the face.
``That’s probably the way they play, trying to get in our heads,″ forward Yolanda Griffith said. ``We’re not about that. We’re about one thing and that’s winning as a team. Maybe there were some cheap shots tonight. But we’re not going to worry about that. We won the game.″
One more victory, and the United States will be in the gold medal game, which is where the Americans had expected to end these Olympics all along. To get there, though, they’ll have to win a rematch with pesky South Korea on Friday.
South Korea, which advanced with a 68-59 victory over France, gave the United States fits in the first game of the preliminary round with its frenetic offense of crisp passing, precise patterns and fearless drives to the basket.
The Americans led by only five points in the second half before winning 89-75.
Australia plays Brazil in the other semifinal.
Unable to match the Americans’ athleticism, Slovakia tried to grind it out by working the ball patiently on offense and forcing the U.S. players to the perimeter with a 2-3 zone.
It led to a lot of bumping, pushing and shoving and it almost got out of hand late in the game.
With 4 minutes left, Slovakia’s Renata Hirakova elbowed DeLisha Milton in the mouth, knocking her backward to the floor. Milton started after the Slovakian player when she got up, but Leslie grabbed her from behind.
``I told DeLisha I realized she got hit, but she had to control herself,″ Leslie said. ``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 saw the red, white and blue.″
It was 51-40 at the time. The Americans then scored the next six points to finally open it up. Goodbye, Slovakia. Hello, South Korea.
``In my opinion, the foul by Hirakova was a huge mistake,″ Slovakia coach Lubomir Dousek said.
Designed to keep the game from becoming a blowout, Slovakia’s slow, physical approach worked. The United States, which had been averaging 87 points a game, had never before scored so few points in the Olympics.
The fewest previously came in a 77-70 victory over Yugoslavia in the 1992 gold medal game.
If it hadn’t been for Leslie, the United States, ahead just 31-23 at halftime, might not have reached 50.
She hit three jump shots, two with her feet straddling the 3-point arc, as the United States opened a 42-27 lead with 15:57 left. That cushion would be enough, though it didn’t get any prettier as bodies constantly crashed to the floor and shots clanged off the rim.
``They did a good job sagging,″ Leslie said. ``I don’t think we’ll see another game played like that again.″
The United States lost starting forward Nikki McCray with a jammed finger early in the second half. Later, the two teams went a total of 10 possessions during a 3-minute span without scoring.
This was not going to be one for the highlight reel.
``We started out strong,″ Griffith said. ``But then we played right into their hands. We tooks shots we didn’t need to take, they got the rebound and slowed the game down.″
Seven of the first 10 U.S. baskets were layups, and the Americans appeared on the verge of blowing it open early.
A vocal band of Slovakian athletes with spinning noisemakers and tireless voices cheered every move by their team and, for a while, it was all in vain.
Ahead 10-8, six different players scored as the United States went on a 16-1 run. Katie Smith hit a 3-pointer. Leslie sank two free throws and made a layup. Griffith, who had 13 points, scored on a perfectly executed pick and roll and Teresa Edwards followed with a scoop shot.
Just like that it was 26-9 and Slovakia had not made a basket for almost 10 minutes. The Slovakian fans continued to make noise, though, and their team finally responded.
The United States went cold and when Anna Kotocova sank two free throws, her team trailed the United States just 26-20. If Slovakia wanted to keep the game ugly, it was working.
Martina Luptakova’s driving basket drew the Slovakians to 27-22. The United States needed two late baskets _ a putback by Leslie and a 3-pointer that Ruthie Bolton-Holifield banked in from the left wing _ just to lead by eight at halftime.