HAINING (FIBA Diamond Ball for Women) - The United States beat world champions Australia 71-67 on Tuesday night to win the FIBA Diamond Ball for Women.
The game that really matters won’t be until August 23, though – the gold medal clash at the Olympics.
That’s when most people expect these two teams to meet again although Russia or another leading team could have something to say about that.
The way the two sides played on Tuesday in Haining, it was as if Olympic gold was at stake.
Penny Taylor, who had a game-high 19 points in defeat, left the arena black and blue after running into a hard pick in the third quarter that was set by United States veteran Tina Thompson.
Taylor's left temple was black. When asked if the USA v Australia clashes are always this physical, she told FIBA.Com: “I think it brings out the worst in all of us. I’ve got a souvenir to take with us.”
Neither team will be reading too much into this result.
American coach Anne Donovan got great play from her veterans, particularly Lisa Leslie (14 points and 10 rebounds) and Sue Bird, who poured in 11 points on five of six shooting from the floor.
“It was a great team effort,” Leslie said.
“I thought our team fought hard, but it’s just a rehearsal. It’s zero-zero. We want to win when it counts.”
Donovan also got a terrific effort from Candace Parker, who had 12 points – six in the fourth quarter - and eight boards.
Bird, a teammate of Australia superstar Lauren Jackson at both Spartak Moscow Region in Russia and Seattle in the WNBA, said: "Tonight was a tough one. Australia is a very good team and we were fortunate to pull it out.
"I think we've only had five or six practices together. This is our third game as a unit and we have gotten better with each game and that is a good sign.
“We have eight more to go hopefully, and as long as we continue to get better and work, we will be okay."
The USA led by 12 points in the first half but a 6-0 run to finish the second quarter left Australia trailing 35-29 at the break.
The action really picked up midway through the third quarter with Katie Smith driving baseline and scoring for a 48-45 advantage, only for Taylor to reply with a three-point play to tie the game.
Smith made two free throws, but a closely-guard Taylor buried a 10-footer to knot the scores again at 50-50.
Parker grabbed an offensive rebound and had the put-back, Kara Lawson made two free throws and Diana Taurasi scored on a drive as the US took a 56-50 advantage into the fourth quarter.
Australia didn’t allow the US to pull away, though.
Back-to-back Laura Summerton lay-ups in transition cut the deficit to 62-61 with 5:44 to go.
After a USA timeout, Bird drilled a three-ball and Parker scored down low for a 67-61 advantage.
Jackson re-entered the game and scored over Taurasi to make it 67-63, and Summerton was fouled by Leslie and made both to trim the deficit to 67-65.
A Leslie basket increased the advantage to 69-65, only for Taylor to answer with a lay-up and make it 69-67.
Thompson, who struggled all night shooting the ball, was left open on the left and buried a jumper from 15 feet for 71-67 lead.
Neither team scored the rest of the way.
“It was a physical game,” Taylor said. “We expected that, but definitely a high quality game. We’ve got a long way to go before we see them again. I look forward to seeing them again.
“We need to fine tune our offenses and go to the boards.”
The USA beat Australia in the gold medal game at the Sydney and Athens Olympics, and Russia upset the USA two years ago to deprive the Opals of a chance at meeting the Americans in the final of the World Championship.
The Aussies did not, Taylor said, need to win on Tuesday to get a psychological edge.
“Tonight was a chance to get a good gauge of where we’re at, give it a good go,” she said.
“We weren’t on the back foot at any point in the game. That’s a good sign going into the Games.
“I was really proud of the way we stepped up when we needed to. They went up by 10, and we stepped up the defense.
When asked if Australia would win the gold at the Olympics, Taylor replied: “That’s right.”
Lauren Jackson had 16 points and eight rebounds and was named MVP of the event.
USA’s Bird, Taurasi and Parker made the all-tournament team with Jackson and China’s Sui Feifei.