U.S. women shake off sluggish start

USA basketball rolls late to topple Croatia in its Olympic opener

Candace Parker and the U.S. women’s basketball team struggled to put away Croatia until a 16-0 outburst in the fourth quarter led to a 81-56 victory in Team USA’s Olympic opener Saturday in London. Parker had 11 points and 13 rebounds. Enlarge photo

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Candace Parker and the U.S. women’s basketball team struggled to put away Croatia until a 16-0 outburst in the fourth quarter led to a 81-56 victory in Team USA’s Olympic opener Saturday in London. Parker had 11 points and 13 rebounds.

LONDON

The U.S. women’s basketball team looked nothing like the squad that is expected to dominate the Olympics.

Maybe it was first-game nerves or a hangover from the opening ceremonies. The U.S. had to overcome a sloppy performance Saturday before finally putting away Croatia 81-56 in their opener.

Coach Geno Auriemma had said he was hoping the Americans could play a style of basketball that would be entertaining and help grow the women’s game internationally. That didn’t happen Saturday.

“We have five players who have never been in the Olympics before, so they are going to be nervous. Everybody was a little nervous,” Auriemma said. “We’re better than we showed, but I don’t know that we’re going to be great right off the bat.”

The U.S., which got back to its hotel at 3 a.m. London time after the opening ceremonies, struggled for the first three quarters before winning its 34th consecutive Olympic contest.

“There was a little jitters, probably a little sluggishness,” U.S. guard Sue Bird said. “For the most part we didn’t finish off plays we normally finish off. We allowed a team that when they get going are known to spread out the floor and try to hit as many 3s as they can, (to) stay with us.”

The victory was far different than the 54-point pounding the Americans gave Croatia a week earlier.

Despite missing its first 14 shots, Croatia hung tough for the first 30 minutes before the Americans finally could pull away.

The U.S., which has dominated its opponents en route to the last four gold medals, only led 53-49 early in the fourth quarter before a 16-0 run put the game out of reach.

“Bottom line is this is the Olympics,” Bird said. “A win is a win, regardless of how it works. Beauty is you can learn from it. Now we know what we need to work on.”

Angel McCoughtry started the burst with consecutive layups, and Tamika Catchings capped it with a three-point play that made it 69-49. Swin Cash, who hadn’t played in the first three quarters, also had a three-point play in the spurt.

McCoughtry finished with 13 points. Tina Charles had 14 points and 10 rebounds; Candace Parker finished with 11 points and 13 boards.

“We know we can play better and will,” Parker said.

Jelena Ivezic scored 22 points, and Marija Vrsaljko, who missed Saturday’s game because of her wedding, added 19 for Croatia – making its Olympic debut.

While the Americans had their way on offense in that contest, they struggled Saturday.

The U.S. built a 9-0 lead early on as Croatia missed its first 14 shots. The Americans could have been up a lot more but missed a lot of easy shots and turned the ball over. The U.S. finished with 21 turnovers.

“Defensively; we were great in the first quarter; we were running, blocking shots, just couldn’t score, and that hurts,” Parker said. “When you look up at the scoreboard at end of first and it’s 9-4, it’s deflating. We just have to do better than that.”

Actually it was 11-4, but Parker is correct – they will have to play better.

Vrsaljko finally got the Croatians on the board with a lay-in with 2 minutes left in the first quarter. The U.S. built its lead to 21-9 and looked poised to take command early before going cold from the floor.

Croatia scored the next 14 points, capped by Luca Ivankovic’s lay-in that gave the team it’s first lead of the game, 23-21. Ivezic’s 3 minutes later made it 26-23.

Diana Taurasi had seen enough, hitting consecutive 3s to restore the Americans’ advantage. The U.S. led 31-28 at the half.

“We played very well for 30, 32 minutes,” Croatia coach Stipe Bralic. “We played smart, and we played good defense. But we played against maybe the best women’s team ever. They got 27 second-chance points, and that shows you how strong they are.”

It was the second consecutive Olympics that the Americans struggled in their opener. They trailed the Czech Republic 13-2 before winning by 40 at the Beijing Games.

The U.S. men’s basketball team, who are also heavy favorites to win the gold, didn’t make the women’s opener. They had practice at the same time. The two teams marched together in the opening ceremonies and are staying in the same hotel

Next up for the U.S. is Angola, which lost to Turkey 72-50 in its first Olympic debut. The Americans will also face China, Turkey and the Czech Republic in pool play. The U.S. beat the Czechs in the finals of the 2010 world championship to qualify for the London Games.

The Czech Republic lost its pool opener, falling to China 66-57. In other early games Saturday, Russia rallied past Canada 58-53.