LONDON - U.S. versus Australia for women's basketball supremacy.
That's the way it's supposed to be. That's been the norm at the last three Olympics — 2000, 2004 then again in 2008.
Not this year.
The Americans won't face their biggest challenger in the gold medal game. Instead, they'll meet a round earlier when the top-ranked teams in the world square off Thursday in the semifinals of the Olympics.
"We can't control when we play them," U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said. "They are a talented team with really good posts in Lauren Jackson and Liz Cambage. We just need to keep getting better every game and focus on what we do."
The last time the teams met in the semifinals was the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. came away with a 22-point victory en route to the first of its four consecutive gold medals.
The Americans have won their last six Olympic matchups against the Australians and will counter Australia's size with the trio of Candace Parker, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.
Fowles had missed three of the preliminary round games while resting a sore left foot. The 6-foot-5 centre has played nine minutes in each of the last two games and played well.
"Getting Sylvia healthy is great and Candace has been playing very well lately," Auriemma said.
They'll need them against the 6-8 Cambage and the 6-5 Jackson.
Still, no team has posed a challenge to the U.S. The Americans have cruised, winning their six tournament games by an average of 38 points. Teams have been able to hang with them for a half, but the depth of the U.S. eventually wears them down.
The U.S. has also dominated its matchups against the Australians — including a 27-point win in the 2008 gold medal game.
"We're operating on a lot of good cylinders right now," Auriemma said. "That could change. It's all about making shots in the Olympics. We're not going to keep Lauren Jackson and Liz Cambage from getting shots."
While the Americans have the players to counter Australia's size, Auriemma said the guards will be the key.
"It's always about guard play whether it's back home in the NCAA tournament or here. The big guys run to a spot, but somebody's got to get the ball up the floor and get those guys the ball where they want it," Auriemma said. "If you have really good guards who can do that you have a really good team. We have some really good guards."
Though things seem to be set in favour of the Americans heading into the game, they are wary of what's at stake.
"I think the semifinal game for whatever reason is sometimes harder," U.S. point guard Sue Bird said. "They've been even more competitive than some of our gold medal games. This point the four teams left are very good teams. It's no surprise that these four teams are in this situation. Everyone's trying to get the chance to win a gold medal."
A gold medal is one of the only things lacking from Jackson's impressive career. She's won a world championship, two WNBA titles and is now the Olympics all-time leading scorer. Yet she's come up just short in her three Olympic appearances, winning the silver medal each time.
Unlike her previous Olympic trips, Jackson has seemed more excited that the Australians have made it this far rather than expecting a gold medal matchup with the U.S. The Aussies have already had the two most memorable moments in women's basketball at the Olympics. Belinda Snell hit a 50-foot heave to send a game into overtime and Liz Cambage had a dunk against Russia, which might have been the first in Olympic history.
Australia came into the London Games off a disappointing fifth place finish at the 2010 world championship. The Aussies are missing star guard Penny Taylor, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in the Euro League finals in April. They lost a pool game to France — the first time they were beaten by a team other than the U.S. in the Olympics since 1996.
"The last four years we've had since Beijing, there have been a lot of changes in our program," Jackson said. "Being in the semifinals and being a medal contender is huge for us. Obviously America is going to be a huge task for us. We'll go out there and play tough and do what we can to beat them. They're a hard team to beat for us. We'll see what happens you never know."
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