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Thursday, August 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:19 A.M.
Ron Judd / Times staff columnist
ATHENS Collision pending.
To be sure, a couple speed bumps await in the road to the anticipated big crash between the U.S. and Australian women's basketball teams, two undefeated juggernauts in Athens after quarterfinal victories yesterday.
The U.S. must get past Russia tomorrow, the Aussies must stifle an uppity underdog Brazilian squad.
But odds are that come Saturday, the Aussies and Americans will be the only teams left in the gold-medal bracket, setting up a grand rematch of the Sydney gold medal game won by America.
For Olympic basketball fans, it would be a chance to see the two reigning women's hoops superpowers do battle once more on the world's grandest stage.
For Seattle fans, it gets even better: Add to the drama the matchup of Aussie superstar Lauren Jackson, the Seattle Storm's reigning league MVP, taking on teammate Sue Bird and Storm coach Anne Donovan, an assistant for Team USA.
The two Storm stars left Seattle around the same time, but they've taken radically different paths to get to the outskirts of the medals podium. The on-court experiences in Athens of Jackson and Bird have been as opposite as the respective teams' Olympic uniforms the skin-tight bodysuits of the Aussie "Opals," and the hang-loose trunks and tops of Team USA.
Jackson, in spite of a nagging ankle injury for which she reportedly received a painkiller shot this week, is the leading scorer in the tourney, averaging 24.2 points in 27 minutes per game. She has been a dominant force for the Aussies, 6-0 after putting rival New Zealand to the sword, 94-55, in last night's quarterfinal.
Bird, conversely, has been a bit player for Team USA, averaging just 3 points in less than 15 minutes per game.
That's by design, both she and her coaches say. And, ironically, it might illustrate why Bird's U.S. squad is favored to repeat in Saturday's gold-medal match.
Coach Van Chancellor has been blessed by a core of veterans with international experience dating to 1996, plus a crop of superstar newcomers Bird, Ruth Riley, and Final Four MVP and Phoenix Mercury rookie Diana Taurasi.
The result has been spectacular: The U.S. won its five preliminary games by an average of 29 points. And Team USA dispatched hometown favorite Greece, pumped up by a large, aggressive crowd, 102-72 in yesterday's quarterfinal at the Athens Indoor Hall.
"We could start our bench, and we could win almost every game," Donovan says without hesitation.
"We're getting the lift we need, and also more stability from our veteran players as we go."
For Bird, sporting a new tan from the endless Athens sun, that means being the floor general at point guard when or if the time is right. That's why she's here, she says, to watch Dawn Staley. To learn from the master.
"Who better to learn from than Dawn Staley?" Bird asks. "This is her third Olympics. I love playing with her, and I love watching her. The way she can control a game without scoring a point.
"I'm definitely young. I don't have that experience. The only way to do it is to kind of watch what she does, and try to put it in my game. That's what I'm trying to do here."
Jackson has no such luxury. She and teammate Penny Taylor, of the Phoenix Mercury, carry the load for the Aussies, who have been dominant, but appear thinner in the ranks than the packed U.S. squad.
Jackson has been her usual, dominating self here, an octopus on defense, as smooth at the offensive end as anyone in the game. Taylor creates off the dribble as well as anyone in the Olympics. When they're on the floor together, Australia plays loose, fast and cheeky.
When they're off it, however, the Opals are a different bunch.
"We're playing as well as we can be," Jackson said last night. "We've still got a lot more to improve on, and we've got two games to do it. I think we can really challenge for that gold medal. We've got a really tight unit, and we're coming together really well."
U.S. players are confident their game is a notch above. Because of its depth, this team has the luxury of not only chasing the Athens gold, but planting roots for future gold-medal teams.
"I'm hoping that (tradition) continues, that Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings, all of them can pass it on to the next generation," Donovan said. "The fear is that it turns into what's happened with the men, where it's difficult to get that commitment."
No worry there, says Bird, who says she counts the Olympics as the pinnacle of her young career. It's been a good Games for U.S. women's team sports, she noted, and that winning feeling is infectious to players like her, who have been watching other sports from the stands.
"I think it's great for women's sports in general," Bird said. "Soccer is in a final, softball won a gold, beach volleyball won a gold, hopefully we'll win a gold. Little girls can now kind of have their pick of what they want to do."
By Sunday morning, a lot of girls in Australia and the States are likely to be hanging a Jackson or Bird poster on the wall and continuing the tradition: Dreaming of the gold medal game, in some faraway place, with the whole world watching.
Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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