The U.S. outlasts Croatia in preliminary round of the 2012 London Games

From USA Basketball:

A 16-0 run in the fourth quarter helped the 2012 U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team (1-0) erase its shooting woes and finally put away Croatia (0-1) for an 81-56 win in its first game of the 2012 Olympics at the Olympic Park Basketball Arena on Saturday afternoon in London, England.

Tina Charles (Connecticut Sun) scored 14 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Angel McCoughtry (Atlanta Dream) added 13 points and collected three steals, Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks) finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds and Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever) rounded out the USA’s double-digit scorers with 10 points.

“Playing in the Olympics is completely different than playing in any other competition,” said Geno Auriemma, USA and University of Connecticut head coach. “We had an opportunity at the beginning of the game when Croatia had a very difficult time scoring. We had an opportunity there to really open a big lead and we didn’t take advantage of that. Like a good team, Croatia came back and actually ended up taking the lead against us. I think that’s to be expected at these games. You don’t go into any game thinking you’re (going to win because you’re) the United States or just because you’re ranked No. 1 in the world and somebody else isn’t. So, we’re not surprised at all by how well Croatia played. We’re not surprised at all about the fact that it was a close game for 30-some minutes. But, we got better as the game went on.”

The USA struggled from the field in the win, shooting 44.4 percent (32-72 FGs), as did Croatia, which shot just 33.3 percent for the game (23-69 FGs). The USA’s size and strength was a great advantage as the Americans outrebounded Croatia 57-32, compiled 46 points in the paint to Croatia’s 24 and tallied 27 second-chance points to Croatia’s eight.

“I know we definitely were trying to play an inside-out game,” Charles said. “Sylvia (Fowles), Candace and I need to do a better job of finishing around the basket but Coach definitely wanted us to point an emphasis on getting the ball inside and executing plays, just trying to limit turnovers and get on the offensive boards.”

While the USA opened an icy 5-of-16 from the field (.313) in the first quarter, Croatia made just 2-of-19 (.105) of its shots, and the USA held Croatia scoreless for the first eight minutes. With a free throw from Lindsay Whalen (Minnesota Lynx) at 3:35, the USA led 9-0, and after two scores in the last two minutes from Croatia, the score was 11-4 at the first break.

The U.S. lead reached 12 points, 19-7, after Parker scored an offensive rebound at 8:00 in the second period. From there, however, Croatia launched a 14-0 run, its largest of the game, that included three 3-pointers to take a 23-21 lead at 4:43. Catchings pulled up for two points to end the onslaught, and then Taurasi sank back-to-back 3-pointers to put the USA ahead 29-26. The three-point margin lasted through to the halftime buzzer, and the USA headed to the locker room leading 31-28.

The shooting improved in the second – to 45.0 percent (9-20 FGs) for the USA, while Croatia heated up to 50.0 percent (9-18 FGs) in the second 10 minutes.

“I think for us, the jitters of finally getting here, for both sides it’s the first game, the first opportunity to get out there,” Catchings said. “There are a lot of people in the stands. But over time we got better, and we were able to overcome the hump we started off with.”

Additional Quotes

Geno Auriemma (head coach, USA and University of Connecticut) Geno Auriemma (University of Connecticut)
On tonight’s game
Playing in the Olympics is completely different than playing in any other competition.   We had an opportunity at the beginning of the game when Croatia had a very difficult time scoring.  We had an opportunity there to really open a big lead and we didn’t take advantage of that.  Like a good team, Croatia came back and actually ended up taking the lead against us.   I think that’s to be expected at these games.   You don’t go into any game thinking (you’re going to win because) you’re the United States or just because you’re ranked #1 in the world and somebody else isn’t.  So, we’re not surprised at all by how well Croatia played.  We’re not surprised at all about the fact that it was a close game for 30-some minutes.   But, we got better as the game went on.  We kept improving as the game went on and for our team, that’s really important because we haven’t had a lot of time together.   One of the things we want to do is keep improving every game and improving during the course of the game.  We did that.   Again, we have 10 or 11 players that can come off the bench or start and I think that may have been the difference.   I think the Croatia team might have got a little bit tired towards the end of the game because they don’t have the depth that we do.  It’s one of the advantages of the United States.   We have good players but we have more of them.  Tonight I thought that was the difference in the game.

Angel McCoughtry seemed to really spark things in the second half especially defensively.  What did you see from her and the juice she gave that group?
One thing we talked about before the tournament started, whatever your role is, whatever you’re really good at, you need to be great at that for our team and Angel’s a fantastic defender especially off the ball.  So she makes things happen.  That second team we had out there was able to not only give us energy which they did but I think they made it difficult (for Croatia).   I think what that second team did made it possible for when that first group came back, I think they had worn down the Croatian team a little bit.   Angel was a big, big part of that.  She’s one of the quickest players in the world.   When she’s going to the basket or she’s on defense in the passing lanes, there aren’t very many people better than her.

Were you disappointed at all to only be up four a few minutes into the fourth quarter?
I don’t think you can be disappointed at this level.   There’s a lot of really good teams and when you’re playing in a place for the very first time … we have five players that have never been in the Olympics before.  They’re going to be a little bit nervous, everybody’s going to be a little bit nervous but shooting the ball in a brand new venue like this is not going to be easy.  I think you’re going to see a lot of really bad shooting percentages early on in the tournament.   I thought defensively we did a pretty good job.  If you hold a team to 56 points then you did a pretty good job defensively.   The offensive stuff:  some days it’s there, some days it’s not there.   We’re better than we showed but I don’t know that we are going to be great right off the bat.

In many of your games, everyone scores.   Is that a point of emphasis for this team … Also, is there any issue with Asjha Jones that she didn’t play?   
Asjha is just a little bit sore.   They were on their feet a long time last night.  I figured out I would give her some time off.  You don’t necessarily make a national team like this one if you can’t score so everybody on the team has the ability to score.  Sometimes, a good defense is the ability to score more often and put pressure on the other team because they might have to keep scoring.  Yeah, we emphasize our offense a lot because we have so many scorers, I’m not surprised that everybody gets a bucket here and there.  That’s the strength of this team.  That and hopefully our rebounding.  I thought our big guys could have done a little better job finishing around the basket.   We have good offensive players.   We have more of them than most people.   That’s what we should be doing I think.

What does your current winning streak mean to you and your team?
I don’t know that it means a lot to all the players on the team because it’s not theirs.  That 34-game winning streak belongs to some of them but not all of them.   Right now, the only streak we are talking about is try to win one in a row eight times.  If we get that streak, then we’ll be really happy.   We’re not going to think about what the other teams did in the Olympics.  That’s not who we are.  That was somebody else.   I bet if you asked the players, how many games in a row they won, they probably wouldn’t know and I’d like to keep it that way.

Do you feel like USA Women’s Basketball is underappreciated for all these streaks and all these records?   Why do you think this team isn’t more popular?  Women’s soccer seems to get more attention.
I have my theories.  I think when you live in the United States and you’re a great women’s basketball player or you’re a great women’s basketball team, you happen to live in a country where the best basketball players in the world live on the men’s team and the best basketball team in the world lives.  You’re always going to be compared to that team or those players and you’re always going to come up short.  That’s just the nature of the game.  Women’s basketball is the most popular team sport in America.  And you’re right, the soccer gets a lot of attention:  once every four years.   During the regular season, during all the other times, women’s basketball gets just about all the attention from any women’s team sport in America.   But when it comes time for the Olympics, it’s like ‘yeah, they’re gonna win.’   That’s unfortunate.  It’s unfair to these players and those that came before them.   I don’t know that there is anything we can do that except just play but it is like UConn.   The only story that’s going to come out of these Olympics is if we lose and then that’ll be a big story.  Then, the U.S. women will be very, very popular all over the world.

What was halftime like?  Did you make a lot of adjustments or sense any panic with any of your players?
No.   Like Tina said, they’ve been in this situation a lot.  When you’re a professional basketball player, you have to be prepared to play the game the way it’s being played.  We said before the game started, we’re not going to win the gold medal or lose the gold medal in game one.  You’re not going to win the game or lose the game in the first half.  The adjustments we made were how we were going to guard the pick and roll.   The adjustments were how we were going to play defense moreso than what we were going to do on offense because I knew our offense was going to be ok eventually.   Eventually we were going to make some shots.  Eventually we were going to get our offensive going.  We just made a couple of adjustments defensively on how we were going to guard it.   We made a conscious decision to make sure we used that second group and they came in and did a great job.  That’s basically the only adjustments we made.

On the Olympic Tournament:
I think sometimes at the Olympics everybody thinks that just because you’re ranked here and you play a team that’s ranked over here that you’re just going to win and win easily.   That’s false.   If you watch the games today … if you went into the games and did anybody think Canada would be beating Russia at halftime or be up 10 with four minutes to go … or that China was going to play as well as they did and beat the Czech Republic like Coach said who finished second at the World Championships.  You got to expect things at the Olympics that maybe don’t happen anywhere else.  And, I think if you went into every game thinking like that then you’re going to be good.  If you go in thinking they’re supposed to win and we’re supposed to lose then that’s exactly how you’re going to play.   Most of the team that are here, they think that that one night, they’re going to win and based on what you saw today, it’s possible and it can happen.  Absolutely.  So, all these people who talk about how dominant the US is …‘oh my God, you’re going to beat everybody by 50,’ those are people that have never played.   That would be like me trying to write.   Like me trying to be a sportswriter.  You know?  Sportswriters like to talk about dominance and fans like to talk about that kind of stuff but usually somebody forgets to tell the other team they’re supposed to lose by a bunch.   That’s the beauty of the Olympics.

On the pressure on the coach to win with a team like the US?
I don’t think it’s about me.   If I was playing, I would feel a lot more pressure because I’m not that good.   So the fact that the players are playing, I don’t feel the pressure myself except when I’m away from the game a little bit and thinking about it.  But, I don’t let that bother me during the day or when I’m with my team or anything like that.  Someday, maybe Monday, maybe Wednesday, maybe Friday, maybe Sunday, who knows, the US is going to lose a game in the Olympics.   That’s just the way the world works.   If it’s me coaching that team, I’ll be disappointed for the players if that were to happen.   I don’t think that’ll effect my life that much.  But, I’ll be disappointed for the players.  I’ll be disappointed for the first-year players that are on this team that have never gotten a gold medal because they want one so desperately.   As long as I keep the focus based on that, then the pressure’s there, whether you worry about it or not.   It’s like you know you know you have a dentist appointment in two weeks, what are you going to do, worry about it every day for two weeks?   On that morning when you wake up, you’re going to worry about it.   I don’t want to worry about what might happen Monday, Wednesday, Friday, whatever.

Sue Bird (Seattle Storm) 
Was the team nervous tonight with it being its first game?

I don’t think that nervous is the right word. I think as a team Croatia played a great game and you have to take your hat off to them. But as a team I don’t think we played our best. We have a lot of individuals who have high standards, as individuals and as a team, and when we weren’t playing up to that what you saw was a little bit of disappoint on all of our faces. But we knew, we knew in the second half we just had to stay with it, stay with it and eventually it would turn around and it did.

Are you satisfied with the game?
A win is a win in the Olympics; you’ve got to be satisfied.

Not the start you envisioned?
No, to be honest I didn’t really envision anything. I think there was probably a little jitters; probably a little sluggishness if you will; but for the most part we just didn’t finish off plays we normally finish off and we allowed a team that when they get going can really get going. They’re known to kind of spread out the floor and try and hit as many threes as they can. When we didn’t put them away early they got back into the game that way. But in the second half we knew we just had to stay with it and the shots we normally make would go in and hopefully we would be able to wear them down.

Swin Cash (Seattle Storm) 
On the team’s 21 turnovers:

A lot of it is our offensive flow. When we get familiar with each other, some of those turnovers will cut back. But in an environment like this, where we’re still trying to build that chemistry throughout this tournament, you’re going to get some of those turnovers. With a point guard like Sue Bird and putting the ball in her hands, I feel good that a lot of the turnovers will cut down.

On the spark off the bench:
It’s one of those things where we feel like we’re the deepest team in this tournament. We have the ability to really stretch the floor and get some pressure full court. That’s our game. We have a very athletic team, a very versatile team and we try to utilize all of our strengths. Like I said, we have a lot to work on.

What’s the biggest area that needs improvement?
One, take care of your body. That’s what’s first. Second, we just need to watch video because a lot of times you can learn the game without going so much on the practice court, getting really familiar with things, seeing how the offense works the floor.

Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever) 
On the team’s first game:

I think for us, the jitters of finally getting here, for both sides it’s the first game, the first opportunity to get out there. There are a lot of people in the stands. But over time we got better and we were able to overcome the hump we started off with.

Do you feel the pressure of holding up the USA’s winning streak or does that motivate you at all?
It motivates me. But for this team, it’s not something that we sit there and talk about. Geno will bring it up, just about the expectations and the pressure, and how that’s not what he wants us to focus on. He wants us to go out every single day, if every player on this team brings what they’re really good at to the table, then we have the opportunity to be one of the best teams ever to play women’s basketball.

What did coach say at halftime?
He didn’t yell at us. He just talked about the jitters. The first game, getting all that stuff out of you. I could tell there was a lot of nervous energy. He talked about people being nervous, he said to take our time, slow it down. He switched up our defense and (talked) about what we were going to do in the second half. That’s about it.

Tina Charles (Connecticut Sun) 
On tonight’s game:

This was my first time so it was really exciting and kind of nerve-wracking for  myself but I think my teammates and I kept our composure out there. Croatia played great.  They came back.  They didn’t settle when they were down.   They started making their shots.   Overall, it was a great game but I think in the second half, we turned it up and we were aggressive coming out and we just had a point to prove.   We came out and we got the win.

Was there anything in particular you noticed you could do to exploit the Croatia defense?
I know we definitely were trying to play an inside-out game.   Sylvia, Candace and I need to do a better job of finishing around the basket but Coach definitely wanted us to point an emphasis on getting the ball inside and executing plays, just trying to limit turnovers and get on the offensive boards.  So that was one thing he said at halftime, to definitely get on the offensive boards.   Tamika Catchings did a great job doing that.

Were you deterred at all when they made it a game before halftime?
No.  We’re pros and we’ve all been in these positions before, whether it be with our teams back home or in college.  I think everybody that came across us as players definitely prepared us for these type of games.  Having captains do it like Sue Bird and Tamika Catchings talking to us has given us that force to go out there and keep it on and just keep playing through it.  Everything is not going to be because we’re Team USA, we’re going to blow people out.  Everybody’s going to come out and play us hard.

Can you talk about how the depth of the squad makes a big difference for the US?
It makes a huge difference.   You know that you have teammates you can rely on offensively and defensively.  We know that we can be unselfish out there, get the ball moving and execute plays to the last shot.  Usually, when you play, you pass the ball once and everybody’s looking to take a shot but I think we move the ball well and our depth definitely helps us. Even when we get in foul trouble – which we weren’t tonight – it just shows you when we put the first team out there, we can throw a punch at them and then the second team can come out there and do what they have to do.   So, it helps.

What were your thoughts on last night’s Opening Ceremonies?
It was epic.   I think that’s the best word I can use.   It was definitely an epic moment for me … something I’ll never forget.  I think it goes along with winning a national championship when I was playing at UConn.  It’s just a feeling that you can’t describe.   It just showed … all these past years just came down to that one night.   That definitely was the cherry on top for everything I’ve been through.  Just that one night.

Can you describe the difference in the game?
It made the difference in that game just having our bench come in and definitely turned the energy up especially when we starting pressing.   I believe Coach Auriemma knows how to use every individual on this team, just putting that group out there to press, to double on the wings and to trap. I think that definitely helps.   And with Croatia, they just kept playing hard.  They never gave up. (Marija Vrsaljko) definitely did a great job for them just finishing around the basket.   I believe she as 8-for-11 so that definitely hurt us.   Just them hitting all their 3’s when they were open. They had us moving a lot.  They were passing the ball quickly out there.

Sylvia Fowles (Chicago Sky) 
On tonight’s game:

I wouldn’t say we overlooked them. We made sure we didn’t overlook them. The first game is always kind of ‘eh.’ It was good to get it out of the way. I think we were too anxious and too excited. We got good looks, but we just weren’t knocking them down.

On the USA’s 16-0 run in the fourth quarter:
We just came up with the energy. Coach stressed to go out there and pressure the ball a little bit more, get after them. It kind of soaked into everybody, so everybody stepped on the court and really focused on doing what he said.

On last night’s Opening Ceremonies:
Opening Ceremonies was great. It’s always a good experience, but it’s just so tiring. But once you get inside the stadium and experience the atmosphere, everything just goes away.

Angel McCoughtry (Atlanta Dream) 
On tonight’s game:

Croatia was playing very well. We had to get better with our defense in stopping them hitting the threes. It was a very close game, of course, but I don’t want to look at it like ‘oh my gosh! They’re so close.’ They’re a good team. Everybody here is a good team or they wouldn’t be in the Olympics. You have to play and get better. We know that we have to come out to a better start in these games.

Was it physical at the end?
Our team’s not going to look at this film and say, ‘okay, let’s play them really hard. Let’s give them a really physical push.’  But I think if we continue to be physical back at teams, we’ll be okay

You had 13 points off the bench, what is your mindset coming in off the bench? 
Honestly, in my heads I’m just hungry. When I get out there, whether it’s 5 minutes, 230 minutes, I’m going to give it all I can. Of course we’re all use to playing a lot of minutes with our teams, we’re all used to all doing what we do best, but this is a different situation so whatever opportunity to get you can not take it for granted, you just have to be hungry out their. I really just enjoyed my first Olympic game, it was a lot of fun.

What about the mindset of the team in the locker room after this game? You guys got a convincing win but it probably didn’t go exactly how you drew it up. What was the discussion afterwards? 
The thing about it we even said at halftime we’re not going to blow teams out from the gate. Everybody kind of expects us to just blow teams out, we have to get better each game; teams are going to come physical; they want us and that’s normal. After the game we said ‘hey, it was ugly at first but we came in and adjusted and we just have to continue to try and build on this, we’ve got to try to come out stronger and try to put teams away like we know we can.

That second unit, I know everybody takes pride in the opportunities they have out on the floor, they were a real spark especially in the third and fourth quarters; what is it about that second unit that was able to get it done today? 
The thing about it is we always say when the first group goes in we huddle and we say ‘let’s bring the energy, let’s go.’ That’s the thing we don’t want to feel like we’re a let down coming in, we always want to feel like we’re bringing a spark, we’re helping the game level actually increase when we come in. So it’s like we’re a team that won’t loose anything when we sub.

Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx) 
On playing in her first Olympic game:

The first thing we noticed was the atmosphere. So many people came and were excited to watch us play. It was a good feeling being in the arena. So that was a really good way to start. I’m glad that we were able to work through some things today. Hopefully the way we finished the game will build the momentum for our next game.

Do you think there were a lot of first game jitters?
I don’t think we have jitters at this point. It’s just that sometimes we’re a little off. It happened a few times on the offensive end and especially defensively. For the most part we held them to a pretty low number of points. They’re great shooters as well and when we left them a little bit of space they knocked them in. So, there are a few things we can take from this, as far as our defense and how we’re going to guard screens. Offensively we just need to keep going, because we know we can score.

Candace Parker (Los Angeles Sparks) 
They kept it tight for the first three quarters and then you turned it on: 

I think defensively we were great in the first quarter. We were rotating; we were running; we were blocking shots; we just couldn’t score and that hurts. When you do all that work on the defensive end and look at the score and the score at the end of the quarter it is 11-4, it’s kind of deflating. We just have to do a better on that.

It seemed the opposite of last week (when the U.S. played Croatia in Turkey and won 109-55) when at the end of the first quarter you had shot 70% and were up 38-18, you didn’t have 38 at halftime tonight?
They made adjustments. I think they knew that we were going to come with pressure so they made it so their guard took the ball out so when they threw it back it wasn’t to a guard not to a post. So it kind of eliminated a little bit of our pressure But I still think we can do a better job of getting up and forcing turnovers.

Is this one of things about the Olympics, where a win is a win is a win?
Yes, a win is a win is a win, but we have a lot of things we can go back and practice on tomorrow. We definitely want to get past this first one, the first one is always the hardest and we’re looking forward to Angola on Monday.

Lindsay Whalen (Minnesota Lynx) 
On playing her first game:

There’s definitely a lot of adrenaline. It definitely was an exciting atmosphere. It’s a great city. You’re playing in the Olympics. You just have to embrace it and have fun in the games, play hard and I think we did that. We missed some shots early, but we went out in the second half and I felt like we ended up playing a good game of team basketball.

Do you feel the greatness of the USA Basketball women’s team is appreciated as much as it should be?
Yeah, I think that what our team has been able to do and some of the players on the team and the talent that we have, people do appreciate it. I think people do like the way we play. We share the ball, play hard defense, we’re aggressive. We just want to continue to play that way, play hard. If we continue to do that, good things will happen.

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