United States 111, Brazil 87
ATLANTA (AP) _ This was one team of Americans who didn’t cry when they won gold. They did cartwheels, instead.
When the clocked flashed no time left, the U.S. women’s basketball team cut loose in unbridled joy. They hugged, they jumped up and down and paraded around the court waving to their appreciative fans.
Dawn Staley, Teresa Edwards and Jennifer Azzi flipped - literally.
``On man, this is sweet,″ said Edwards, a four-time Olympian. ``This is so sweet, you can’t describe it. All these people here, it’s just incredible. We played right to the end.″
All their toil and travel during the past year yielded the ultimate reward: an Olympic gold medal. It came Sunday night with a 111-87 victory over Brazil that finished one of the most impressive runs by any team in these Olympics. And yes, that includes their male-counterparts, the Dream Team.
The victory re-established the Americans as the world’s best, avenging a loss to Brazil in the 1994 world championship and reclaiming the Olympic gold they last won in Seoul.
It also brought a successful close to the mission coach Tara VanDerveer was given when she agreed to take the job. As her players mounted the medal stand, tears welled in VanDerveer’s eyes.
She had been given more time and money to get ready than any previous Olympic coach _ and she succeeded.
``I’m very proud of this team’s success,″ VanDerveer said. ``I didn’t look at it as a no-win situation. I looked at it as a challenge.″
A challenge she and her team handled with verve, energy and an ability to electrify the Georgia Dome crowds in a way the men’s Dream Team never did.
They were the most popular U.S. basketball players in Atlanta, weren’t they?
``I would say so,″ Staley said. ``They stayed for our awards ceremony. They didn’t stay for the Dream Team. I think they appreciate the way we always came out and fought hard.″
The game was the final event of these Summer Games, all the more fitting in an Olympics where American women demonstrated their power as never before.
The U.S. team swept through eight Olympic opponents, improving its record to 60-0 since the team was put together less than a year ago. Lisa Leslie led the Americans with 29 points.
``This a crowning moment for this team and for women’s basketball in the United States,″ Rebecca Lobo said. ``Because we brought the gold back home.″
They won this game the same way they won most of the others: strong inside play, timely outside shooting, and a big run at the start of the second half. They shot 66 percent from the field.
They also showed a lot of crowd-pleasing flair - something the Dream Team didn’t show often enough. Katrina McClain dominated inside. Sheryl Swoopes and Ruthie Bolton scored from the perimeter, while Edwards ran the show.
And Leslie was everywhere.
``I just knew I wanted to win and have my teammates count on me scoring inside,″ said Leslie, who was 12-for-14 from the field. ``It’s the best game I’ve ever played, the best moment of my life. We’re No. 1.″
Once the United States got safely ahead, it was showtime. A team that had been deadly serious in its pursuit of gold couldn’t help but break into smiles and high-fives as Staley, reserve guard, led one fast break after another.
The crowd of 32,997 cheered throughout. This team didn’t need Charles Barkley leading a Y-M-C-A dance to excite the folks.
``We played our best game when it was for the gold medal,″ Leslie said.
Sunday’s clincher was played at a frenetic, breath-sapping pace.
The United States shot 72 percent in the first half, yet Brazil was still in the game, trailing by 11. Then eight straight points in the first 2:06 of the second half took the lead to 19.
When the game ended, the players hugged, shot their index fingers in the air, signifying _ at last _ that they were atop women’s basketball again. While they took their victory lap, Kool and The Gang’s ``Celebration″ played over the loudspeakers. Staley and Carla McGhee danced.
The fans celebrated, too, chanting ``U-S-A, U-S-A″ and showering their cheers on a team that energized the Dome for two weeks.
The 111 points were the most for the United States in Atlanta and the most ever in an Olympic gold medal game, topping the Soviet Union’s 104-73 victory over Bulgaria in 1980. For the games, the United States averaged 102.4 points and won by an average margin of 27.
``I don’t think NBA players can shoot the way they did tonight,″ said Brazil’s coach, Miguel Angelo.
Swoopes finished with 16 points, Bolton 15 and McClain 12. Edwards had nine points and 10 assists, while Bolton had five steals and five assists.
Edwards got a piece of history as the first basketball player to win three Olympic gold medals. McClain won her second gold, to go with a bronze.
The players had every reason to cut loose. They sacrificed nearly a year of their lives to prepare for Atlanta _ and for less money than they would have made playing overseas. VanDerveer took a one-year leave from her coaching job at Stanford.
Together, they trained longer and harder than any previous U.S. team. They traveled more than 100,000 miles, playing on four continents, and never lost.
``This culminated the whole year,″ Edwards said. ``We’re soaking in every minute.″
Along the way, the U.S. team attracted a whole new legion of fans to the women’s game and spurred plans for two professional leagues in this country. VanDerveer and her team generated so much interest that the gold medal game was made the lead-in to the closing ceremony.
The victory returned the United States to the top in a sport it ruled in the 1980s. But after a gold medal at Seoul and at the 1990 world championships, the Americans began to slip and came away with bronze medals in the 1991 Pan American Games, 1992 Olympics and 1994 world championships.
Those disappointments prompted USA Basketball to set up the year-long program to prepare for Atlanta, and $3 million was invested. It paid off in gold.
A key to the victory was the defense of Swoopes, Bolton and Nikki McCray on Brazil’s dynamic guard duo of Hortencia Oliva and Paula Silva. Both scored only four points in the second half, Oliva finishing with 11 and Silva seven.
``I got tired,″ said the 36-year-old Oliva, who gave birth to a son in February. ``The United States played very well. Our team did what we could. We still scored 87 points. It is not our team that lost it, but the United States that won.″
Janeth Arcain led Brazil with 19 points. The silver was Brazil’s first Olympic medal in basketball. The Brazilian women finished seventh in their only other Olympic appearance, 1992.