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Thursday, September 21, 2006
Updated: September 24, 7:58 AM ET
U.S. defeat leaves bitter taste, burning questions

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

Um … OK, here's the bright side for U.S. women's basketball coach Anne Donovan: Now she can actually root for Lauren Jackson in the World Championship gold-medal game.

Donovan, of course, coaches LJ for the WNBA's Seattle Storm. And part of the big news from Brazil on Thursday is that the Aussie superstar led her team to Saturday's final. The somewhat bigger news, though, is that she won't be facing the United States.

Team USA
Sheryl Swoopes (left) and Cheryl Ford could only watch as time expired on Team USA's gold-medal hopes.

Nope, the Russians knocked off the favorites 75-68, ending the Americans' 51-game international winning streak that dates back to 1994. Team USA had won the previous three Olympic golds and the past two world titles without a blemish.

Here's some perspective: The last time the American women lost, current Tennessee sophomore Candace Parker, who has been outstanding in Brazil for Team USA, was 8 years old. The WNBA did not exist and no one had ever heard the term "text message." Andre Agassi was still a long-haired pretend rebel, not Tennis Yoda. You might not have had a personal computer or known what the Internet was. There was no World Series in 1994, because major league baseball players went on strike.

There wasn't even a Tennessee-UConn rivalry in women's basketball. Those two superpowers wouldn't play each other for the first time until January 1995.

On the topic of "superpowers," that's what the former Soviet Union was in women's basketball for decades. If you want the whole long history of the Americans vs. the Soviets in this sport, that was my Thursday morning column.

I sort of had a feeling this was going to be a tough game for the USA women, and I think a lot of other women's hoops followers did, too. Now, did we expect the Americans to lose? Nope. Or be down by 20 points in the second half? Nope. They'd won their previous seven games -- including one against Russia -- all by double digits.

This was a stunner, but it certainly wasn't off-the-charts weird. As noted, even though they're not the Soviets anymore, the Russians have been formidable at women's basketball for as long as it has been contested as an international sport. In the last two World Championships, the Russians lost close gold-medal games to the Americans: by six points in 1998 and by five in 2002.

The Russians also trained together as a unit coming into this event, whereas Team USA did not get together until a few weeks beforehand, after the WNBA season ended.

For those who typically pay little or no attention to women's hoops, this loss will register, on the surface, only in terms of its similarity to what happened to the American men last month, when they lost in the world semifinals to Greece. And if you lined up the U.S. men's and women's players against their respective "conquerors," you'd think, "There's no way the Americans can lose."

But it's basketball, a team game of sometimes hard-to-define stretches of momentum and mojo. The Russians had those Thursday and the Americans, despite a fourth-quarter rally, really didn't.

For those who follow women's hoops, this USA loss will prompt considerably more discussion and debate than another gold medal would have. Among the issues sure to be chewed over:

• How much did Team USA miss veteran centers Lisa Leslie and Yolanda Griffith? They couldn't play because of family issues (and health concerns for Griffith), and they sure seemed to be big absences Thursday, Leslie especially.

At 6-foot-5, she had anchored Team USA for a decade. This World Championship was the first major competition she hadn't played in since the 1992 Olympics, when she was still at USC.

Leslie, 34, is coming off an MVP season in the WNBA, during which she proved she still is dependable and effective inside at the highest level. She's the all-time leading scorer and rebounder for the United States women's program. When the Americans' offense just wasn't working Thursday, they couldn't look to No. 9.

This was a stunner, but it certainly wasn't off-the-charts weird. As noted, even though they're not the Soviets anymore, the Russians have been formidable at women's basketball for as long as it's been contested as an international sport.

• Someone was wearing that jersey on the USA bench, however: Cheryl Ford. She set the WNBA single-season mark for rebounds this past summer and helped lead Detroit to the league title just two days before she and Shock teammate Katie Smith flew to Brazil to join Team USA.

Ford didn't play at all Thursday, and neither did WNBA rookie of the year Seimone Augustus. This is the first World Championship for both, and Donovan -- struggling all night to help her team find its true personality -- decided not to use them. Could they have made any difference?

• Of course, Donovan will be second-guessed on that -- and everything else. Team USA couldn't win forever, so some coach was going to have to take that "first loss in a million years." It's too bad it had to be Donovan, someone who has given so much to USA Basketball in her career as a coach and a player.

The 6-8 Donovan was on the U.S. roster for three Olympic teams (including the 1980 boycotted Moscow Games) and two World Championships. She put in her time trying to wrestle in the paint against the Soviet Hall of Famer Juliana Semenova, a 7-2 center who was so large she appeared to be an optical illusion.

Incidentally, due to the inherent imprecision of translating from the Cyrillic alphabet, you can find at least eight different English spellings of Semenova's first name. Thursday's chief Russian hero, Oxana Rakhmatulina, presents us with a similar challenge. We just can't get her name quite right in English.

• Thursday, Team USA couldn't get its defense quite right, either, on Rakhmatulina (who scored 18 points) or on the rest of the Russians. The Americans had stressed defense so much and been very good at it previously in this tournament. So why did it seem like the Russians were getting the looks they wanted all night?

Maybe because fatigue and lingering injuries did end up playing a factor for Team USA. These aren't excuses and aren't meant to take anything away from a valiant and admirable effort by Russia.

But consider that three-time Olympian Sheryl Swoopes was really just a shadow of herself due to back problems. Her Houston Comets teammate, Tina Thompson, missed 13 games in the WNBA season with a calf injury. And while she has been very good most of this tournament, you could see by Thursday that eight games in 10 days had caught up to her.

Same for DeLisha Milton-Jones, who missed WNBA time due to a knee injury, and Smith, who wasn't hurt this season but along with Ford did play the longest in the league -- all the way to Game 5 of the Finals. Smith is 32 and in great shape. But she is a human being. You add the WNBA's compacted schedule with her playoff run, and there is good reason why she didn't look like herself on court in Brazil.

• And about that WNBA schedule -- for the next World Championship, perhaps FIBA and the WNBA will figure out a way to make this all work a little better? Let's hope. It's not easy coordinating the various calendars when you add in European, Russian and Asian women's leagues that play in the fall and winter. But having the World Championship start three days after the WNBA playoffs ended -- and needing to cram 34 regular-season games into a shorter period than normal even to do that -- is pushing things too much.

• Ultimately, Team USA doesn't have anything to feel too badly about. Sure, it's disappointing, and they all believe it's completely inexcusable for them to lose. There is so much pride in American women's basketball. The players are hurting mostly because they did not give an effort Thursday that they can accept as worthy of their ability.

However, this group still has another important challenge -- trying to earn a bronze medal -- and that's not going to be easy at all, as the Americans face host nation Brazil.

This was a transitioning U.S. team, with some veterans not there and some just not themselves. But there are many positive signs. The U.S. players should watch the opener against China again, just to cheer themselves up and see what beautiful basketball they played. That game was a joy to see.

So was just about everything that Parker did on the court, and the great news for the Americans is that several of her college peers who weren't in Brazil are going to be very strong performers for the senior national team soon -- and there's young talent at every position.

Expect Leslie back for one last Olympic hurrah in 2008. And also expect that USA Basketball officials will take long looks at some WNBA players who weren't on this team -- how about Finals MVP Deanna Nolan, she of the unguardable jump shot? -- and consider adding them for Beijing.

It has been quite a run for Team USA, which still has more work to do in Brazil. Meanwhile, congratulations go to Russia and Australia -- either of which will be a deserving world champion for 2006.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.