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'Losing gets their attention:' US women's basketball team rolls into semifinals at Olympics

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TOKYO – The U.S. women’s basketball team knows when it’s showtime.

Losing an exhibition to Australia in Las Vegas before the Olympics didn’t really matter. But when Olympic elimination was on the line against the Opals in a quarterfinal Wednesday, the Americans took no chances in a 79-55 victory that was all but over at halftime.

“Losing gets their attention,” Australia coach Sandy Brondello said after what she hoped would be a gold-medal match-up with the U.S. turned into an elimination without a medal for a second straight Olympics and a 1-3 showing in Tokyo.

The U.S. took control with a 17-0 run in the first quarter to lead 21-6 and stretched the advantage to 48-27 at halftime at Saitama Super Arena. Unlike in Las Vegas when up 41-28, the Americans didn’t let up and Australia continued to struggle offensively without 6-8 center Liz Cambage, who dropped off the Olympic teams due to mental health concerns.

U.S. posts Breanna Stewart, Brittney Griner and A’ja Wilson combined for 48 points and 17 rebounds.

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Breanna Stewart scored a game-high 23 points in 23 minutes vs. Australia on Wednesday.
Breanna Stewart scored a game-high 23 points in 23 minutes vs. Australia on Wednesday.

Stewart alone had 20 points at halftime on her way to a game-high 23 in 23 minutes. She followed a traditional 3-point play with a deep 3-pointer late in the second quarter, part of a 9-0 run going into halftime that drained any Opals’ hope when they still were within 12, 39-27.

“She was unconscious,” U.S. coach Dawn Staley said. “The way she gets inside, outside. I’ve seen her in USA Basketball and how much she’s grown. She didn’t play much in 2016, but she took notes. What stands out is her defensive effort.”

Guard Diana Taurasi said, “Stewie is a special player. She’s a special person, which gives her the ability to be one of the best players that’s ever played. There’s just something about her, the way she carries herself around her teammates and her ability on the court speaks for itself.”

Chelsea Gray, Sue Bird and Taurasi, who didn’t play in the Las Vegas game, combined for 17 assists on a day when none were needed for double-figure scoring.

Opals guard Leilani Mitchell hit four 3-pointers for a team high 14 points and Cayla George added 11. But Australia was outshot (45 percent to 30 percent), outrebounded (44 to 38) and committed 21 turnovers including 10 in the first quarter alone.

The U.S. won its pool games by nine points (vs. Nigeria), 17 (vs. Japan) and 11 (vs. France), none in the dominating fashion shown against Australia that raised its overall Olympic winning streak to 53 games.

Up next on the path toward a seventh consecutive gold medal is a semifinal against Serbia on Friday. The Serbians improved to 3-1 in Tokyo with a 77-70 quarterfinal victory over China.

The U.S. beat Serbia 88-69 in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Belgrade in February 2020.

“They’re tough,” Bird said. “All of us who played overseas, you always had a baller on your team and it was a Serbian player. They just know how to play basketball. When they step on the court, they’re just out there to play basketball and have fun and they’re good at it. That’s what we’re going to be facing. It’s not going to be easy.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US women's basketball team rolls by Australia, into semis at Olympics