courtesy USA Basketball
The Diamond Ball Tournament is a great tune-up for the Olympics because it features not only the U.S. and Australia but also 2006 World Championship silver medalist Russia and emerging China, which figures to be tough in the Olympics thanks in no small part to home-court advantage.
The U.S. and the Australia Defence Force Opals each had one matchup against the other competitors and a second game against lesser competition.
Australia drew China in its opener and led by as many as 22 points en route to an 84-70 victory. Lauren Jackson, returning after missing an exhibition against Brazil with a minor ankle injury, led the Opals with 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting, grabbing four rebounds. Suzy Batkovic and Penny Taylor added 17 apiece for the strong Aussie offense.
Game two for the Opals saw Mali, ranked #31 in the current FIBA rankings, hang right with Australia for a quarter. It was 21-19 Opals at the end of the first period before Australia outscored the outmatched opposition 30-5 in the second quarter. Thereafter, the Opals cruised to a 112-43 victory. Nine players scored at least eight points for Australia, which shot 53.2 percent and had just six turnovers all game. Jackson led the way with 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting, adding a pair of blocks and steals. Ho hum.
In their opener, the Americans faced Latvia and a red-hot Aneta Jekabsone-Zogota. She scored 24 points as Latvia hung tough throughout the game before the U.S. women ultimately prevailed 84-74. It was a balanced scoring attack for the USA, which got double-figure point production from five players, including the Storm's Sue Bird. In 19 minutes, Bird scored 11 points, dished out a pair of assists and had two steals. Bird had three three-pointers, which was key as the U.S. struggled from downtown, shooting 33.3 percent (4-of-12).
Early this morning Seattle time, the U.S. women squared off with Russia, the team that ended their 50-game winning streak in major international play during the 2006 World Championships. It was also the first matchup for new Russian point guard Becky Hammon against her home country. Surprisingly, it proved a lopsided win for the USA, which led 43-19 at the half and finished with a 35-point victory, 93-58.
Bird had two points and two assists in the game, deferring to backcourt-mate Diana Taurasi, who scored a game-high 21 points. Really, the U.S. won with defense, limiting Russia to 37.1 percent shooting and forcing 26 turnovers - six by Hammon alone. She scored 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting and had only one assist, though she did come up with three steals.
I'm always wary of reading too much into any non-medal matchup with Russia, which has a history of saving its best performances. That goes double for a game that is merely an exhibition contest. However, a 35-point margin of victory is certainly a surprise, and Russian Head Coach Igor Grudin sounded displeased with his team afterwards.
"This game looks like we are not ready," he said. "We have a little bit of time to do something. We will work for that."
As the two undefeated teams on top of their respective three-team groups, the U.S. and Australia face in the championship game of the tournament tomorrow. If I'm understanding the conversion correctly, that game will take place at 4:30 a.m. Pacific time.