By Cheryl Coward and Lee Michaelson
RIO DE JANEIRO – Even though the U.S. defeated France by a hefty margin, 86-67, to reach its sixth straight Olympic gold medal game, it was not an easy road to victory. Playing without starting point guard and four-time Olympian Sue Bird, the U.S. looked out of sorts on offense for several stretches in the first half. After suffering a sprained knee capsule Tuesday in a quarterfinal game versus Japan, Bird was listed day-to-day and did not suit up in the matchup against France.
“You’re not going to be able to take someone like that (Sue Bird) out of the lineup and have it just continue to flow smoothly like it did the first six games,” said USA head coach Geno Auriemma. “So, we struggled a little bit with it. Our ball movement wasn’t nearly as good, there was a different kind of rhythm, a different kind of flow to our offense. But once we got a little bit comfortable there in the third quarter, we got some separation. We probably needed a game like this under our belt going into Saturday. We found out a lot about what we need to do and what we’re capable of doing.”
The U.S did struggle indeed but managed to pull out a win with a feisty French squad on its heels for much of the game.
“It wasn’t pretty but we came up with the win,” said center Sylvia Fowles who scored 12 points and added nine rebounds. “We came out very slow, very stagnant.”
While the U.S. scored first off of a layup from Brittney Griner, France responded with a run to earn a four-point lead. The Americans recovered to finish the quarter on a 15-9 run.
In the second half, the U.S. seemed to be on the verge of pulling away significantly after earning a 10-point lead at 5:02 after a layup from Seimone Augustus. But France roared back with a 14-8 run and only trailed by four points going into the second half, 40-36.
France was unable to sustain its pace over the course of 40 minutes. The U.S. came out blazing in the third period to outscore the French 25-8 and earn a 21-point lead.
France did outscore the Americans 23-21 in the last ten minutes but it was not enough to get closer than 11 points.
Diana Taurasi led Team USA with 18 points, five rebounds and four assists. She scored six of her points in the third quarter. She complimented the French team’s skill and effort when addressing the U.S.’s sluggish start.
“It’s not we were out of sorts,” Taurasi said. “They were really good. Sometimes you got to give credit to the other team. I always say the other team goes to practice, too. They practice their shooting, and their plays, and their defensive rotations and they were on point in that first half. They made us work.”
Maya Moore contributed 15 points and seven rebounds. Seimone Augustus and Griner finished with 10 points and six rebounds each.
France’s captain, Isabelle Yacoubou had a team-high 14, making five of her six field goal attempts. Marine Johannes, only 21 years old, scored 13 points.
“They’re the best players in the world,” said Yacoubou about playing the U.S. “When you play a team like this, you just try to have fun. We all know they’re better than us.”
France was able to advance so far in the tournament on the strength of veterans and youngsters and were without the services of starting guard Céline Dumerc for the duration of the Rio Games. Dumerc suffered an ankle injury in the week leading up the Olympics during practice.
French center Sandrine Gruda, who has played in the WNBA, was not happy with the outcome but had an optimistic outlook.
“I cannot say (we’re) happy. Because when you lose, you’re never happy….But we have a last chance to win a medal, so this is what we’re going to be focused on.”
“Of course this team is great with Bird or without Bird. They are so complete. At every position they are very good. So, basically, we didn’t see the difference.”
The U.S. continues its dominance over France in international competition leading the all-time series 9-1.
Team USA (7-0) will meet Spain (6-1) in the gold medal game at 2:30 p.m. (EDT) on Saturday, Aug. 20. Spain advanced after beating Serbia (3-4), 68-54. Serbia and France (4-3) will meet in the bronze medal game at 10:30 a.m. (EDT) on Saturday.
How difficult was it to play tonight without having Sue Bird available?
You’re not going to be able to take someone like that out of the lineup and have it just continue to flow smoothly like it did the first six games. So we struggled a little bit with it, our ball movement wasn’t nearly as good, there was a different kind of rhythm, a different kind of flow to our offense. But once we got a little big comfortable there in the third quarter we got some separation. We probably needed a game like this under our belt going into Saturday. We found out a lot about what we need to do and what we’re capable of doing.
Did (Bird being out) create a sense of urgency for other players?
Yeah, the only issue is though it’s not like you put someone in there and replace her. It’s so much more difficult than that and it changed D’s role and we had to put her in a different spot, and it changed Seimone’s role, and it just took some time to figure it out. But our defense was terrific and it fueled a lot of our offense. Then we got D (Diana Taurasi) making shots from everywhere and Sylvia cleaning things up on the boards. We played a really good team. It’s the semifinal for the Olympic gold medal so I don’t think anybody expects that we’re going to go out there and just name our score and that they’re going to roll over. I thought it was a really hard fought game and whatever we got tonight we earned it. We didn’t play our ‘A’ game but maybe France had something to do with that.
What about playing Spain in the championship game?
Well we played them in the championship game in Istanbul in the (2014 FIBA) World Championship and obviously they’re an experienced bunch, they’ve played together for a long time. They’ve got great guard play and Torrens is one of the best scorers in the world. But they do a great job of playing together and they play well defensively, they execute their stuff, they’re really well coached, he does a phenomenal job with them. We’re going to have to win the game. At this time of the tournament, for the gold medal, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, they’re not going to out there and lose it, you’re going to have to beat them. I think we ‘ve got enough guys in that locker room that have played in that game and won that game, so I feel pretty good.
This likely will be the last time you’ll coach Sue and Diana and the rest of the former Huskies, semimetal about that?
I think it will be maybe after the fact because it’s unusual that you get the opportunity to do it in the first place and here I’ve had the opportunity to do it twice for eight years and it does bring back a lot of great memories. It’s a special time in my life that just as my coaching career winds down I get to somewhat end it with the players who if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here. So I guess it’s just fitting that it worked out that way.
Did you asked Diana to shift her role in terms of the way she played without Sue?
Yeah, because we can move Diana around a lot of different ways and she doesn’t have to worry about initiating a lot of stuff because Lindsay (Whalen) and Sue (Bird) are going to do that. So now without one of them, either D (Diana Taurasi)or Lindsay (Whalen) has to be in the game at all times and when D is in the game without Lindsay she’s got to be initiating it and that’s what happened in the first half, there was like a little bit of a disconnect of how do I get her more shots when she’s trying to be efficient with her offense and that’s not really her roles but it had to be role tonight And then you’ve got Seimone who’s just ‘run the floor and we’ll find you.’ Now it’s hang back and help D bring the ball up the floor. So just a lot of different things that we had to adjust on the fly. But we’re better off for it. I think going into Saturday I think we’re better prepared for Saturday having gone through it today.
Are you going to train tomorrow?
I’m going to try. To be honest, yesterday I didn’t feel amazing and then I woke up and felt dramatically better. I’m just hoping for the best tomorrow and we’ll see from there.
When is the last time you missed an Olympic game?
Never. I’m sure I had a DNP in my first one but I don’t know that that counts.
Will you risk playing Saturday if you still feel injured?
I don’t think you get to where any of us are without being smart. I’m not going to be stupid about this. This is your body; you have to listen to it. You don’t want to put yourself in danger but if I can play, I’m definitely playing.
How hard was it to not play today?
Now, not so hard. During the game, pretty hard. We were just a little out of sorts and I feel like I can help in that department so it was difficult. Honestly, they did a great job. The semifinal game, I don’t care who you’re playing against is the hardest game. It really is. You lose that and you get nothing … well a potential bronze. It’s very difficult so I’m really proud of my teammates.
What was the difference in the first 20 minutes versus the last 20?
I think energy definitely. Not having Sue out there, just being that primary ball handler makes other people have to kind of tune it a little more. But, I think from an energy standpoint, we didn’t have it in the first half. Second half, we really talked about it. We got to get back out and playing the way we know how to play. You could feel it right from when the ball went back in, you could feel it. The energy was higher, getting to the basket, getting those and ones and that really sparked everything.
Not having Sue really seemed to impact you so much?
I think when you have one player that has the ball in her hands 90 percent of the time they are on the court, it’s different. And just being able to move the ball … and now you have D playing point guard and she’s used to just being able to catch and shoot and Mone (Augustus) being in the starting lineup. She’s kind of like just trying to figure how to fit in with that group. I think it’s a lot of different dynamics. Sue definitely is a big part of the way that we start the game, the way the offense flows, her leadership out there right off the bat. You just have a different comfort level knowing that she’s in the game.
What does it mean that you’re one win away from a gold medal?
We’re blessed. I’m super excited and having played Spain and knowing them and watching them, I think for us, this was a great game for us, the last two games … Japan too and then tonight. I feel like they have really prepared us for the gold medal game. Going into that, the struggle that we had, the first half we had today and even coming back … and the fourth quarter, being able to overcome turnovers and all that stuff. I’m looking forward to the game Saturday. I think that we’ll come out with a lot more energy than we have. I know we talk about it every game but we still haven’t put out the best team that we are.
Thoughts on going into Saturday?
It’s really hard to get back to the gold medal game or the championship game for that matter. We’re really enthusiastic about it and looking forward to Saturday.
Will you turn up the intensity for the gold medal game?
Definitely. Everyone is going to turn it up a notch. Diana after every game always says we haven’t peaked just yet. We’re looking forward to the challenge, going up against Spain. We’re not going to underestimate them, not going to think what we did in the first round of a pool is what they’re going to bring. France came out and gave us their best. They competed the entire time.
Thoughts on playing without Sue Bird?
It’s really hard to play without Sue. The balls always in her hand, knowing what she’s going to do. But, I think we responded really well. Seimone did a great job. I think Diana too. And Lindsay for ball handling.
Can you talk about the battle inside with France?
It was definitely tough. They came out and competed. They wanted to get to the gold medal game just as much as we did. I think our post players did a really great job, especially Syl down low.
Can you describe matching up against Yacoubou?
It’s no different than what you see in the WNBA. There’s great players that we face the entire summer in the WNBA. I think the players in the WNBA prepare you for the situations you are in now.
On the possibility of the USA winning a sixth-straight Olympic gold medal:
It’s been tough. It hasn’t been an easy road. This was a very tough game today. I was panicking at halftime going, “Oh my God!” But the veterans stayed very composed, (I was) just watching them, they come out and we’re up by like 20 in no time. It’s going to mean a lot. We’re ready for the gold medal game. We’re not going to come out playing (around), we have to be serious and really get this. Because it’s going to be a different game. People might say, “Oh, they just played Spain and beat them by 40 points. It’s going to be a different ball game on Saturday. Very different.
On relying on defense when the offense wasn’t firing in the first half:
We had to. That’s what coach A was just yelling at us about, getting stops, we gotta get stops. I know today I prided myself on trying to be a defensive threat and trying to give energy in that way, because we needed stops bad. We know we can score, but if we’re trading buckets that’s not going to help us. France played a very good game, they’re a very good team, and that was definitely a tough on tonight.
On Sue Bird talking with the coaches during the game:
Yeah, Sue was like, “Hey let’s go guys. We’re all right. Take a deep breath,” in her beautiful voice. But you can tell something’s missing. She makes such a big difference. The way the flow of the game was going was just different. So that shows the difference she makes on this team. We just had to figure it out today. Listening to her, at halftime she really helped us out. We came (out) cranking it up a little bit more in the second half.
On the changeover for the U.S. team in 2020 and who would be out there as the next point guard?
If you took this whole squad away and bring in another group of girls, they’ll probably win a gold medal. There’s so much talent. You’ve still got DeWanna Bonner, Jewell Loyd, so many girls who aren’t even on this team yet, Skylar Diggins. Another group can come in and win a gold. You’ve got a lot of girls ready for every spot. Candace Parker’s not here. So, you’ve got to think. There’s so much talent that’s available out there.
How much does chemistry and how much does Geno Auriemma influence this team?
He says this is one of his favorite groups that he’s coached (with USA Basketball). We just have great chemistry, we have a lot of fun, everybody’s energy and attitude is just awesome, especially hanging off the court. I really enjoy these girls. I think he can see that. He senses that and it shows out on the court how much fun we’re having.
How difficult will the game against Spain be?
I know they’re going to watch a lot of film and try to adjust some things, and really find our weak points and attack. We just have to adjust as well and find some ways in which we can get better.
What was it like to go out there without Sue Bird? Was there more of a sense of urgency?
Oh definitely. I think that we got on the court and knew we were one person down and especially it being Sue. We wanted to make sure we were able to step up and do that. It took us a while to kind of figure out how to play without her. The ball goes through her a lot in most possessions of the game and I think we stepped up big in the second half.
What was the key to stepping up and getting this win?
I think the ball just kept getting stuck, we needed to continue to move the ball and eventually we would find an opening.
At this level, it’s the semifinals, it’s not a layup, things don’t come easily necessary.
Definitely and I don’t think we wanted them to come easily. Everyone knew, as a team we knew that this is one of the hardest games to play just because you’re going for the gold medal game. France wanted it. France wanted to be in that game but we pushed through and we’re able to play again on Saturday.
What does it mean to be able to play for a gold medal?
It’s an unbelievable feeling. For me having played for gold medals before at different levels, you can’t even compare it to being here and being at the Olympics. I think it’s one of best accolades or honors you can get in a sport. I’m excited to be able to be a part of it.
What was the halftime message?
(Defense is) always our key. People are always fascinated by how many points we score, but the fact that we can really hold teams down, it showed a lot of character in the third quarter, against a very good team.
Was it a good test heading into the gold medal game?
It’s huge. This is always the toughest game. You’re talking about teams that don’t want to go home, that are fighting for their lives as much as we are. These games are never easy. Never.
On the French team:
I said before the game, right before we went out, that this was going to be a hard test against a veteran, tough, world-class team. And that’s how France played today. They’re one of the top teams in the world every year, and we know that.
You seem to be friends with many of their players, is that the case?
We’ve played against them, I’ve been playing against (Isabelle) Yacoubou and Celine (Dumerc, France’s injured point guard) and Sandrine (Gruda) and (Endy) Miyem for 10 years overseas now. I know what kind of players they are, how much they love basketball, and you can tell.
Is Geno Auriemma the reason you keep coming back?
That definitely is the icing on the cake. I love playing for my country. If I keep getting opportunities, it’s hard to say no to playing for your country and representing that.
What was the key in this game?
The second half we just turned the defense around. Granted in the first half they were making some tough shots. There’s a reason why they’re the semifinalists – they have world-class talent; they’re a great team.
How hard is it to play without Sue Bird?
It’s hard. She’s a big part of what we do and today we kind of had to figure that out in the first half a little bit. She gets everyone in the right spot. We had to change the line-ups a little big. We figured it out in the end.
Did you feel you guys were a little out of sorts in the first half?
It’s not we were out of sorts. They were really good. Sometimes you got to give credit to the other team. I always say the other team goes to practice too. They practice their shooting and their plays and their defensive rotations and they were on point in that first half. They made us work.
Can you talk about the fire you feel that this may be your last (Olympic) game?
It’s huge. I can feel it. I think a lot of people in this locker room know how important it is to a lot of people. It’s one of those things that you have to balance being calm and relaxed and using that to fuel you. It’s definitely a balancing act.
What’s different this year versus your previous three Olympics?
I mean this team is just locked in right now. Today Catch came in and gave us huge minutes, she hasn’t been playing much, came in today and turned the game just by being herself. You find different inspirations from different people and that’s shows a lot of respect that we have for each other.
How much did you have to shift your role without Sue?
I had to change my mindset a little bit, a little more distributing mindset. I mean when Sue’s out, you forget how much she does for this team. We have so many scorers that she finds a way to get everyone in their spots, to get everyone touches and obviously she sacrifices for that. So today, I had to do a little bit of that and I think we figured it out in the second half … still hard.
What did you guys say in the locker room at the half?
It was one of those things before the game even started, we huddled up and I was like ‘you guys, it’s going to be hard tonight.’ This is going to be a hard game. I know France like the back of my hand. I’ve played them in the EuroLeague for the last 12 years. I’ve played them in international play the last 12 years. It’s never an easy game against them. That’s their brute strength and today they matched that with their skill. It’s a hard team and that’s why they’re in the semis.
Thoughts on Spain and the gold medal game?
It’s going to be the same old dance. Spain. They got world-class players. Palau, Dominguez, Cruz, Alba Torrens. I’ve been overseas on the same team with her the last two years. This is going to be a great game between great teams and great players alike.
What’s going to be running through your mind with regards to you, Tamika and Sue as you try to finish this thing off?
It’s been one of those things that we really haven’t talked about it. It’s been like kind of the elephant in the room that we’re ignoring. We really haven’t brought it up because we really want to be in the moment. We don’t want it to be about us. We want it to be about this team and this group of 12 players and coaches and staff. It’s not about whether it’s our last game, it’s not about whether it’s BG’s first gold medal game. It’s about this team right now.
How much did the team miss Sue tonight?
Well, she’s an unbelievable player, so of course, we are going to miss her. But, I thought in the third quarter there we were able to get a little bit of a run and create some distance between us and France. But, Sue was still amazing – leadership and in the locker room and talking, so what you would expect from a great player like her.
What did she say in the locker room and the sideline?Just to stick with it. Just kind of understanding it’s a long game, and keep running our sets, and keeping spacing and playing hard on defense. So, those are the main things, and we all just had to kind of buckle down and make it happen.
On playing Spain in the gold medal game:We’re in the finals, so we know it’s going to be tough. Tonight was tough, and we held together. WE stuck together. We gutted it out, and we got the win. So, we’ll look forward to what we can do better – watch the video. We’re happy we won tonight, and in a couple hours here (we’ll) turn around and get ready for Saturday’s game.