What makes them better?

Brian Mahoney
Yahoo! Sports

ATHENS, Greece (AP) – The gold medals had only been hanging around their necks for a few minutes when members of the U.S. women's basketball team started getting asked the question everyone knew was coming.

How come the women were able to maintain American hoops dominance, but the men weren't?

Better teamwork? Better effort? Better preparation?

The answer, of course, is simple.

Better talent.

Players win games, and that's been the case throughout the history of sports. The team that has the best players is almost always going to win.

Most of the best men's basketball players in the United States decided to stay in the United States. The best women's players in the United States are now wearing gold medals.

In a closer game than expected, the Americans fought off Australia 74-63 on Saturday to win their third straight gold.

They trailed inside the final minute of the third quarter, but relied on their depth and veteran leadership to seize control early in the fourth. Quality depth and veteran play are exactly what the men's team came to Athens without.

Comparisons between men's and women's sports have always been unfair. Men are naturally bigger, stronger and faster. But when comparing the pair of American entries into this Olympic basketball tournament, it's the men that that get the short end of the stick.

Most of the men's players are only in Athens because other men's players decided they didn't want to be. Even the women recognize that.

"The guys came in with really a big mountain to climb," forward Tina Thompson said. "A lot of them weren't supposed to be here. But they came here, and I think that says a lot for them."

But they came here with a lot of flaws. The women came with a loaded roster that included three three-time Olympians in the starting lineup and a bench that included a former WNBA MVP and players like Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Ruth Riley, who have won player of the year awards and national championships.

That can make the difference between winning the gold and winning the bronze.

With the Americans trailing by two points late in the third, reserve point guard Shannon Johnson scored the final four points of the period to give the U.S. a 52-50 advantage heading into the fourth.

The Americans then opened the final quarter with Yolanda Griffith, another reserve, and Johnson combining for all the points in a 7-1 run that pushed the lead to 59-51 with 7:08 to play.

Griffith is the perfect example of how the women built their team the right way. When they needed to add what was, at the time, their 12th player, veterans like Dawn Staley publicly said they wanted it to be Griffith.

She was the perfect choice. Instead of going for inexperience, like the men did when they took Carmelo Anthony and Emeka Okafor with late picks, the women chose a player who played on their 2000 team that won the gold medal and who just happened to be the WNBA's MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in 1999.

"You don't want to go with too many young players," Griffith said. "You want to go with players who have been in this atmosphere. I understand what you have to do for this game."

It wasn't just off the bench that their experience showed. The women's team also started three players – Staley, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes – who have been on all three Olympic teams since 1996.

That experience was crucial in each of the last two games. After the Australians had closed within seven points with 2:25 to play, Leslie made a basket and Staley added two free throws to return the lead to double digits.

In Friday's semifinal game, the Americans led Russia by just two points with 4:23 remaining before Swoopes scored the next four points and added a key defensive play down the stretch as the U.S. held on for a 66-62 win.

"When we played Russia and when we faced Australia, it was the veterans who really stepped up," Leslie said.

"I recall times when we were down and we looked at each other and Sheryl pulled us together one time, Dawn pulled us together and then I got us together, and we were just talking about shutting them down, getting the rebound, coming out fighting with heart, and I think it's those little things that having that experience of being there before is where that fight came from."

The men, on the other hand, have no players who had ever played in an Olympic game before coming to Athens. They also couldn't rely on much experience with the way the game is played internationally, while the women have nine players who have played in leagues overseas.

So how come the women have such a well-constructed team? Easy – they said yes.

Van Chancellor says he got all the players he asked for. And while many of the men cited the long season as their reason for declining a trip to Athens, consider this: The women had training camp in February, have been playing in their WNBA seasons since May, and on Wednesday – when most of us who have been in Athens will be unwinding – their teams will be back on the court when the WNBA season resumes.

"We've been to Cuba, we went to Poland, we went everywhere," he said. "They gave up 35 days of their lives."

With their undefeated run through the Olympics, the American women extended their winning streaks to 25 straight Olympic games and 43 consecutive victories counting world championship play.

Staley says she has played her last Olympic game, and Leslie and Swoopes may not decide to stick around until 2008.

But it probably won't matter. They will just plug in other great players to make sure they have the best team. That is why the women won the gold and the men didn't.

And it's why the women can be expected to keep winning. It may take persuading to send a men's team good enough to win, but that won't be a problem for the women.

"The good news for USA women's basketball, our players want to play," Chancellor said. "We're gonna get our best players."

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