Deeper, more fit USA tops Australia
Quick-hit thoughts about Team USA's 86-73 semifinal victory over Australia on Thursday:
What happened: The game that most expected would be for the gold medal ending up happening a round earlier. The Australians played as well as they could have hoped in the first half, shooting 61 percent from the field and leading 47-43 at the break. Liz Cambage had 19 points, and Team USA wasn't able to give her much discomfort in the paint. Was an upset brewing?
Well, if you've watched the Americans throughout this Olympic tournament, you probably suspected their defense would kick in during the second half. And it did. Cambage didn't score after halftime and didn't even seem nearly as involved in the game.
Credit the Americans' physical effort to clog up the inside, which for the second 20 minutes was pretty superb. But the youngster Cambage -- she won't turn 21 until Aug. 18 -- has to become more fit to have more energy throughout a 40-minute tussle. She has to be able to stay strong in the paint and not drift from the basket as she tires.
The queen of the Aussies, three-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson, had 14 points and did her usual hard work on the boards with 17 rebounds. Veteran guard Kristi Harrower had 12 points for Australia. The Australians gave it all they had. But once the Americans got some separation, they were able to hold the Aussies at arm's length the rest of the way.
Will this be Jackson's final Olympics? She'll be 35 for the Rio Games in 2016, and one suspects she'll still want to play. But she has dealt with a lot of injuries, so we'll see. Clearly, the Australians really have missed injured forward Penny Taylor in these Olympics, but they still gave Team USA its toughest game of the tournament thus far.
What it means: Team USA moves on to the gold-medal game, as the Americans attempt to win their fifth consecutive Olympic tournament. Since women's basketball was introduced as an Olympic sport, the Americans only once have ended up with silver: in the inaugural 1976 tournament. The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, won gold in 1984 and '88 before ending up with a bronze in 1992. It has been gold ever since. Meanwhile, the Australians have won silver in the past three Olympics and now will try to claim the bronze.
Play of the game: Maya Moore stole the ball from a weary-looking Cambage, then raced ahead for an uncontested layup early in the fourth quarter. It symbolized two things: USA's defensive surge in the second half, and the fact that Cambage just wasn't able to play at the same level in the second half that she did in the first.
Player of the game: It didn't look like it in the first half, but center Tina Charles really came through for the Americans. She led the interior defensive effort that tightened considerably after the break. And she finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
By the numbers: Point guard Sue Bird had one of those "quiet" fantastic games, with 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting, four rebounds, two assists and no turnovers. When Bird's teams really need her to score -- in her WNBA or international careers -- she virtually always gets it done. Kudos to the Minnesota Lynx connection: For important stretches in the third and fourth quarters, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Moore were on the floor together and displayed the great chemistry that they've built as WNBA teammates. The U.S. needed their spark; the trio finished with a combined 23 points and five assists. Diana Taurasi had a tough outing from 2-point range (0-of-5), but hit both of her 3-point attempts and was 8-of-9 on free throws. She tied Charles for the team high in points with 14. One stat that can't please coach Geno Auriemma: The Americans were 18-of-29 (62 percent) from the foul line. That made the game closer than it could have been.