US women’s basketball set for rowdy home crowd

Greek fans clap in unison amid waving flags and feet stomp as chants of «He-llas! He-llas!» rock the Olympic basketball arena and rattle the rafters. «We came to the men’s game against Greece and they were crazy,» United States player Diana Taurasi said. «These people love their sports and love their country.» They love their women’s basketball team, too, and the Americans will find out just how much when they play Greece in the quarterfinals tomorrow. It should be quite a sight – and quite a contrast to what the Americans have seen so far. They played their first five games in front of small crowds at the Hellenikon Indoor Arena, which seats about 12,000. The largest was 2,000, and only 954 saw the United States beat the Czech Republic. Taurasi’s University of Connecticut team used to draw more than that for pickup games. But the final three rounds will be played in the 19,250-seat Olympic Indoor Hall, next to the track stadium. And with Greece as the opponent, this will be a road game in every sense for the Americans. «I think the atmosphere is going to be great, not only for Greece, but also for US basketball,» Yolanda Griffith said. «But we can’t get too high or upset by the crowd. This is their home court, so we have to keep our momentum and not let the crowd get to us and just execute offensively like we’re capable of doing.» That momentum comes from five decisive victories in these Olympics, the latest a 100-62 romp past China on Sunday. The United States came in as the favorite for a third straight gold medal and still looks the part, though a talented Australian team is lurking on the other side of the bracket, setting up the possibility of a rematch from the 2000 gold medal game in Sydney. That’s what Aussie star Lauren Jackson wants. Jackson answered with no hesitation when asked who she’d like to play if her team made the finals. «The USA, baby,» she said. «All the way.» And the Americans? Whoa, not so fast. «I got Greece on Wednesday. That’s all I’m thinking about,» coach Van Chancellor said. «If you think we’re going to think past there, no. We’re playing them in front of 18,000 here. They’re going to be pumped up. If we don’t take them seriously, we won’t be in the gold medal game.» Chancellor still didn’t know yesterday if he would have guard Katie Smith for the game. Smith missed the first game in Athens because of a bruised right knee and she sprained the same knee against China. Greece, which has a women’s basketball team in the Olympics only because it’s the host country, went 2-3 in the prelims. The team’s star is Evanthia Maltsi, a crafty offensive player who’s averaging 20.4 points a game and put up 33 in a 93-91 victory over Japan that secured the quarterfinal berth. Maltsi and her teammates danced at midcourt during a raucous celebration after that game. Some threw their warmups and jerseys into the crowd. They’ll need to be back down to earth against a US team that’s deeper, more talented and more experienced. The Americans have won 22 straight games in the Olympics since losing in the semifinals at the Barcelona Games in 1992. «It will be a great experience for us,» said Greece’s Anastassia Kostaki. «The US is the greatest power on the earth.» Still, the Greek team plans to show up. «We won’t come here as lambs to be slaughtered,» coach Georgios Tsitskaris said. The United States-Greece winner will meet the Czech Republic-Russia winner in the semifinals. In the other quarterfinal games, Australia plays New Zealand and Spain meets Brazil. The Australia-New Zealand game has a good storyline beyond the regional rivalry. New Zealand is coached by Tom Maher, who guided Australia to the bronze medal in the 1996 Olympics and the silver in 2000. Maher is making strides with the New Zealand program. The team known as the Tall Ferns in their homeland won only a classification game in Sydney, their first appearance in the Olympics, but they won two preliminary games this time. «This is going to be a football match, hopefully not,» Jackson said. «They’re a bit rough. But we’ll go out there and play the best we can.» At this point, there’s no other choice for the eight survivors. A loss in the prelims doesn’t hurt. Lose tomorrow and those medal hopes are gone. All that’s left then is a long, agonizing wait for Beijing in 2008.

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