- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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LONDON -- So it happened. Somebody finally punched the United States women's basketball team squarely in the face.
And you know what? U.S. tri-captain Diana Taurasi kinda liked it. Not trailing by four points at halftime, exactly, but the fact this semifinal Olympic game against Australia was edgy, contested.
"Not the worst thing for us,'' she suggested.
"Well, Diana's very competitive,'' noted fellow captain Sue Bird, who has developed a reputation of her own for being hell-bent on winning.
So, even though Bird was fairly confident Australia wouldn't shoot 61 percent again in the second half, and even though Taurasi was convinced her teammates could do a better job of negating the Aussies' bigs, the duo strode into the locker room at halftime and unloaded on their star-studded roster.
"I went off for about eight minutes, and then Sue went at it for a good four,'' Taurasi said. "It was basketball stuff, you know? Australia's a big team. If you think you can just come down and play them one-on-one, then you're out of your mind.''
And, yet, there were moments when Taurasi attempted to do just that. She was so frustrated with the Americans' poor shooting (44 percent) in the first two quarters, she reacted the only way she knows how: by pushing the issue. During one possession late in the first half, she tromped to the hole and took a wild shot that made everyone cringe, mostly because she was flying through the air when she took it and was already playing with three fouls. Her energy and her swagger have always been her biggest strength -- and, on those rare occasions, her biggest weakness.
Bird and Asjha Jones and Swin Cash have seen this before. They were forced to continually rein in Taurasi when she was a know-it-all freshman at UConn who did whatever she felt was right -- regardless of whether her coaches or her teammates agreed.
"But I have to say, I've been impressed with Dee during these Olympics,'' Jones said. "We don't have to say anything to her anymore. She has great self-control. She stops herself now.''
Taurasi said she was only mildly concerned by the first-half results.
"Some concern, sure,'' she said, "but no panic. I never get panicked. Panic doesn't really get you anywhere. If anything, we needed to settle down.''
Australia had built its lead by keeping it simple: feeding 6-foot-8 post player Liz Cambage a steady diet of uncontested passes in the post. At the break, Cambage had scored 19 points and was dominating the game.
Tina Charles, the young center for the U.S., admitted she was concerned which direction the game was taking.
"This is my first go-around,'' Charles confessed. "At the half, I was a little eeeehhhhh ''
Taurasi and Bird wouldn't hear of any self-doubt. They demanded better play in the frontcourt. Auriemma added his direct challenge to Charles and his centers to knock Cambage out of her comfort zone. Be physical, the coach urged them.
Ask Taurasi, and she'll maintain a little contact never hurt anyone. Her strategy for negating the physicality of the Australians was to dish a little back.
"I'm a pusher,'' she said. "Push me and you better expect a good shove back.''
With 3 minutes, 12 seconds left in the third quarter and Australia clinging to a 56-55 advantage, Taurasi barreled to the basket in transition and was called for an offensive foul.
So the team's leading scorer, who absolutely hates to sit, who had drilled two monster 3-pointers to jump-start the U.S. in the third, was yanked from the game at one of its most critical junctures.
But herein lies the beauty of this U.S. team. It is so deep the Americans managed just fine without one of their most strong-willed leaders.
Lindsay Whalen, who is playing some of the best basketball of her career, checked in and scored six straight points for the Americans. Tri-captain Tamika Catchings and Angel McCoughtry ratcheted up the defensive pressure and Charles starting working over Cambage in the post.
"I took that [first half] personally,'' said Charles, who finished with 14 points and 10 boards.
Order was restored once Seimone Augustus added some key baskets, and Jones, who has not logged significant minutes during these Games, displayed the kind of defensive toughness that earned her a spot on this team in first place. She forced two turnovers, blocked a shot and boxed the Aussie bigs off the glass.
Asked if she sensed Auriemma might go to her, Jones said, "Actually, I think Dee told Coach to put me in.''
"I gave him the little nod,'' Taurasi confirmed.
By denying the post more effectively, double-teaming Cambage and playing a tighter 2-3 zone, the U.S. reduced Cambage's big night to a really strong half.
She did not score a basket in the final two quarters.
By the time Taurasi checked back in with 4:48 left in the game, the U.S. was on top 76-66 and had matters in hand. That did not stop her from sticking her nose back into the fray, jostling with Australian forward Rachel Jarry and trading shoves with Samantha Richards.
"The pushing makes me crazy. Dee is so important to us, and if the wrong thing happens " Bird said, trailing off. "Dee just has to live on the edge.
"But that Dee is the same person who goes out there and nails five 3-pointers in one quarter -- there's just nobody I'd rather be out there with.''
Behind 14 points from Taurasi and Charles and 13 from Bird, the U.S. advanced to the gold-medal game with an 86-73 victory. The U.S. has won 40 consecutive Olympic basketball games and shows no signs of cracking.
That doesn't mean that Taurasi has any intentions of toning it down. As the final ticks clicked off, Australia's defenders bumped Taurasi numerous times with the intent of stopping the clock and sending her to the line. When the referees failed to call the initial contact, Taurasi harrumphed at them incredulously. When they finally blew the whistle, she flashed them one of her smartest wise-guy grins and kicked the ball back soccer style. Asked if she wanted to kill Taurasi when she did that, Bird rolled her eyes and answered quite simply, "Yes.''
"If they're going to [expletive] me up for one whole possession, well, then, that's what happens,'' Taurasi said. "I mean, come on, right?"
There are moments during these Olympic Games when this U.S. squad can do without the emotional whirlwind that is Diana Taurasi.
But during the other 39 minutes? The team simply can't imagine winning without her.