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U.S. Wins Women’s Basketball Gold

September 30, 2000 GMT

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ This was a gold medal earned the hard way.

On foreign soil, in front of a hostile crowd and facing the home team, the United States beat Australia 76-54 Saturday to win the gold in women’s basketball and cap a perfect Olympics.

The United States did it with cornerstones _ strong inside play, quickness and depth _ and reaffirmed its position as the world’s best in the sport.

U.S. teams won the gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and in the 1998 world championships before this success in Sydney, going 25-0 in those games.

The latest victory came against an inspired Australian team energized by boisterous fans waving flags and signs. But in the end, it was the small band of U.S. fans, led by Alonzo Mourning and several other members of the men’s team, who were cheering as the players celebrated on the floor.

They had overcome their last challenge in a tough Olympic tournament.

Australia’s silver medal marked the nation’s highest finish ever in women’s basketball. The Aussies had won their first seven games in Sydney with outstanding defense and sharp teamwork.

But the team known affectionately to its fans as the Opals could not match the Americans’ talent. Lisa Leslie was too quick for the Australian post players, Natalie Williams and Yolanda Griffith too strong. Sheryl Swoopes scored almost anytime she felt like it.

And the U.S. depth was overwhelming. Australia just couldn’t keep up.

As men’s star Vince Carter watched while wearing an American flag, the United States turned it on early. The U.S. team built a 15-point lead and was up by 13 at halftime. The crowd not only was getting quiet but restless.

Australia got its fans back into the game with a 8-0 run early in the second, pulling to 45-38 on a 3-pointer by Kristi Harrower with 17:33 left.

It was still close, 53-45, when Williams had five points and an assist in a 7-0 run that restored the lead to 15. It was 60-45 with 10:54, and the Australians had fired their last shot. They were never closer than 13 after that and the final margin matched the United States’ biggest lead.

When the Americans called time with 52.9 seconds left, the players began hugging and exchanging high fives. They knew they had done it.

Leslie and Williams led the led the United States with 15 points each. Swoopes scored 14 and Griffith added 13.

Australia got a strong game from its 19-year-old center, Lauren Jackson, who scored 20 points and blocked two of Leslie’s shots. But she had no help. Sandy Brondello, who had been averaging 12.6 points, scored only two.

The Australians suffered an additional setback when Harrower, the starting point guard, turned her left foot with 14:27 left and had to be helped from the floor, tears streaming down her cheeks. She did not return.

The game was loosely called and players often banged into each other without nothing called. Swoopes and Harrower jawed briefly as they walked off the floor at halftime and the crowd booed when Griffith and Michele Timms got tangled up near the U.S. basket and tumbled to the floor.

But there were no further incidents and the game ended on a peaceful, if disappointing note, for Australia, the bronze medalist in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

There was even a humrous incident near the end when Leslie’s hair extension fell off. She picked it up and threw it into the photographers’ section and was smiling as she talked to Jackson at the other end.

When it was over, Griffith rushed into the stands to hug her daughter.

Staley grabbed the flag from Carter and draped it on her shoulders as she paraded around the court, while the dejected Australians stood in front of their bench.

Leslie also found a flag to wear and other players waved smaller flags on sticks, DeLisha Milton strutting and gyrating as she waved hers.

The players then did a lap around the court before going to their dressing room, and Dawn Staley turned cartwheels.

It was a victory worth flipping over.

The gold medal concluded a challenging Olympics for the Americans, who were tested in almost every game and had to rely on their depth to wear down opponents in the second half.

And unlike 1996, when the U.S. team trained full time straight through to the Olympics, this one had its time together interrupted as the players went their separate ways this summer for the WNBA season.

Then, with no time to catch their breath, they went right back into training and had less than a month to regain their chemistry.

Swoopes, one of the key players in these games, did not join the team until late August after helping the Houston Comets win their fourth straight WNBA title.

The team also had to play without one of the game’s brightest young stars, Chamique Holdsclaw, who could not play in Sydney because of a stress fracture in her right foot.

Yet coach Nell Fortner and her team overcame it all and claimed their reward in gold.

The United States set the tone early by doing what it does best _ beating teams down the floor on the break and pounding the ball inside.

Swoopes, who left the semifinal victory over South Korea the day before with a sore left knee, wasn’t hampered in the least, scoring the first six U.S. points and passing to Nikki McCray for the next basket, which came on a fast break layup.

Australia trailed just 16-15 when Jackson scored on a lob pass with 13:21 left. But the United States held Australia without a basket for the next 4:05 and started to pull away.

Consecutive three-point plays by Griffith on a fastbreak layup and Williams on a putback stretched the lead to 26-18. Leslie scored five straight points to finish a 9-0 run that made it 35-23 and when Edwards swished a 3-pointer from a full step behind the arc, the United States led 40-26.

Griffith’s jumper gave the Americans a 43-28 lead and it was 43-30 at halftime _ an unusual position for the United States in these games.

Usually, this team did not get control of the game until the second half. But when it counted most, the Americans clicked early. On this night, they were not to be denied.