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Defense driving U.S. game

ATHENS, Greece -- Sitting on the gym floor, her sneakers off and back against the wall, Sheryl Swoopes looked and felt relaxed. Practice was over and soon she'd be spending the rest of the day with her 7-year-old son, Jordan.

Swoopes knows to savor such moments because, on the basketball
court, things are getting tense in these Olympics.

The medal round is here.

First up for Swoopes and her teammates: a quarterfinal game
Wednesday with Greece, not the strongest of opponents, but
certainly the best supported.

"There's definitely more pressure on us now that we advanced,"
Swoopes said. "I think people expect us to come here and win the
gold medal. We expect to win the gold medal and we're not going to
be happy or satisfied with anything less than that.

"But it's going to be tough."

The United States has swept past every team in its path so far
in its drive for a third straight gold medal. With strong inside
play, relentless rebounding and harassing defense, the Americans
won their five preliminary round games by an average of 29 points.

Though a bit costly because guard Katie Smith was lost with a
knee injury, the games served their purpose of giving the U.S.
players a chance to become a team. While some of the players
trained together off last winter and spring, coach Van Chancellor
never had everyone together until they assembled in New York on
Aug. 2.

"Not to say I doubted our team, but there probably were a few
question marks because we didn't have much time together," said
Swoopes, who's playing in her third Olympics. "But to see how far
we've come ... I'm very confident in every player we have on this
team.

"I feel like every player deserves to be here. Every player on
this team is going to contribute in one way or another, whether
they play two minutes or 30 minutes or seven minutes."

The most obvious problem has been turnovers, an average of 19 a
game. Too many passes have sailed out of bounds instead of into the
hands of a teammate.

"We're turning the ball over sometimes because we're careless
and then we are too unselfish," Chancellor said. "We're giving up
shots. We ought to go ahead and shoot the ball instead of trying to
pass to a teammate. It's the first time in history a coach has said
we ought to quit being so unselfish."

The turnovers haven't been critical because the United States
has forced so many itself with that nasty defense. The Americans
are averaging 16 steals a game and have held opponents to 33
percent shooting.

"We're winning, we're playing well, our chemistry is great,"
Tina Thompson said. "We're moving forward. We're in the medal
round, so this is kind of all or nothing right now. It's time to
put it all out there."

No one is enjoying this experience more than Thompson, who has
been one of the top players in the WNBA for years but was never on
an Olympic or world championship team before this. Not that she
hadn't tried. She just had some rotten luck.

Injuries kept Thompson off the world championship teams in 1998
and 2002, both of which won gold medals, and she was only an
alternate for the 2000 Olympic team, missing out on the gold medal
run in Sydney.

When USA Basketball asked her to be part of the core group for
Athens, Thompson had to think about it. Did she want to set herself
up for the possibility of more disappointment? Then she thought
about winning a gold medal and that did it.

"I guess that's the gist of it, to win the gold medal,"
Thompson said. "And the group of players that had been put
together was awesome. I think that definitely helped in making my
decision, being a part of such a special group."

The United States-Greece winner will play the Russia-Czech
Republic winner in Friday's semifinals. In the other quarterfinal
bracket, Australia meets New Zealand and Spain plays Brazil.
Australia was the silver medalist in Sydney and Brazil took the
bronze.

The semifinal winners meet Saturday for the gold; the losers
play for the bronze.

"Right now, we haven't done anything in our minds," Chancellor
said. "Because in the USA, you're measured by how you do in the
medal round. Nobody cares what we did in those other five games.
What we're measured by is what we do in the next three."

The U.S. team will play those games without Smith, a 2000
Olympian and a deadeye on the perimeter. Smith tore cartilage in
her right knee in Sunday's game with China and will miss the rest
of the Olympics.

Diana Taurasi, who led the team with 19 points against China,
will get the minutes Smith would have played.

"The way she practiced [Tuesday], she's ready," Chancellor
said. "She had a great game the other night. She's rolling right
now."

And so is the entire team.