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Aug. 21, 2008

The U.S. women’s basketball team passed its first test of the Olympics, beating Russia in its closest contest in Beijing. Now it’s on to a fourth straight gold medal game.

Diana Taurasi scored 21 points and Tina Thompson added 15 to help the U.S. pull away from Russia 67-52 on Thursday night in the semifinals. The Americans will face either Australia or China in the gold medal game Saturday. The U.S. will be looking to win its fourth straight Olympic gold medal.

The U.S. had been averaging 99.2 points as they cruised through the first six games, winning by 43 points a contest. The closest win was a 38-point rout of Spain, in which the U.S. only led by five at the half.

However the Americans hadn’t played a team as good as Russia, which had been inconsistent during the Olympics – barely winning games in pool play. In the quarterfinals, the Russians trailed Spain by 18 in the first half before rallying for an 84-65 victory.

For nearly 23 minutes Russia gave the U.S. all it could handle, taking a 38-33 lead on Maria Stepanova’s bank shot with 7:17 left in the third quarter.

Then the Americans scored the next 12 points.

Thompson hit a tough turnaround jump shot to start the run. A 3-pointer by Katie Smith and another by Taurasi, layups by Thompson and Lisa Leslie gave the U.S. a 45-38 cushion.

Stepanova finally ended Russia’s drought with a foul line jumper with 3:25 left in the period it was the last points they’d score in the quarter as the U.S. led 48-40 going into the final period.

Russia could get no closer than nine in the fourth quarter.

Stepanova scored 14 points to lead Russia, which will play in Sunday’s bronze medal game.

U.S.-born Becky Hammon, a naturalized Russian citizen, didn’t score until making a free throw with 9:30 left in the game. She didn’t hit her first field goal until 2:52 was left in the game and Russia was down by 14. She finished the game with three points going 1-for-6 from the field.

After running through its group, winning by an average of 43 points, the U.S. routed South Korea in the quarterfinals. The only problem they had in the first seven games was in the first three minutes in the opener against the Czech Republic when the U.S. found themselves down 13-2. They went on to win by 40.

On Thursday, the U.S. had a first half to forget as they missed a half dozen layups, shot poorly from the foul line, and turned the ball over. Only the Americans’ defense kept them in the game.

Leading 23-21, Russia went on a 7-2 run capped by Stepanova’s layup with 2:29 left in the second quarter to give the Russians a 30-23 lead. The Americans scored the next 10 points, including two 3-pointers by Taurasi to take a 33-30 advantage. The U.S. had a chance to go into the break up at least by three, but Cappie Pondexter committed the 13th turnover of the half and Irina Osipova scored a layup on the other just before the buzzer to make it 33-32 at the half.

The U.S. found itself in a new position after the first quarter – trailing. Through pool play and the quarterfinals the Americans never trailed after the first period. On Thursday they couldn’t hold onto the ball committing 10 turnovers in the first period, most coming on sloppy play. Lisa Leslie had half of them herself as the U.S. found itself down 16-13 after the first.

The U.S. has won 32 straight games in the Olympics with their last loss coming to the Unified team in the semifinals of the 1992 Barcelona Games.