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The USA beat the Spanish 101-72 to claim the women’s gold and extend their unbeaten run in the Games to 49 matches, their previous defeat having come as far back as Barcelona 1992. “The United States are impossible to beat,” said Spanish power forward Laura Nicholls prior to the final, acknowledging the superiority of their formidable opponents, whose one and only defeat in an international competition in the last 20 years came against Russia in the semi-finals of the 2006 World Championships.
Victorious in all other 89 matches they have played at major tournaments in the last two decades, the Americans flexed their muscles from the very start in Rio. In cruising through Group B, they amassed a mammoth points difference of +204, scoring their biggest win against Senegal (121-56), their narrowest against Serbia (110-84), and putting 40 points between themselves and eventual runners-up Spain. That was the European side’s one and only defeat of the competition, and they too impressed in the group phase, finishing second behind the peerless Americans.
Sue Bird and her team-mates maintained their high standards in the knockout phase, beating Japan 110-64 in the quarters before being made to work slightly harder by France in an 86-67 semi-final win. As for the Spanish, they secured a tense 64-62 win over Turkey before beating Serbia 68-54. The US made a surprisingly slow start to the final, thanks in no small part to Alba Torrens, who helped herself to 10 first-quarter points, and some suffocating defensive work by the Spanish. Geno Auriemma’s players eventually clicked into gear and moved into a 21-17 lead by the end of the opening period.
Vying for the fourth gold medal of her Olympic career, along with Bird and Tamika Catchings, Diana Taurasi hit a three-pointer halfway through the second period to give the holders an 11-point lead and some breathing space. By the time the players went off for half-time, the Americans were a comfortable 17 points to the good at 49-32. Giving free rein to their talents after the interval, the stars of the WNBA produced a string of spectacular lay-ups and outpassed their opponents, delighting the crowd with their skills. Though Silvia Dominguez hit a mid-court three-pointer right on the buzzer at the end of the third period, it did little to dent the USA’s lead, which had stretched to 32 points.
The Spanish managed to cut the gap by three points in the final quarter, but the reigning champions remained well in control throughout, eventually cruising home by a 29-point margin, with Taurasi and Lindsay Whalen both contributing 17 points and Maya Moore 14. “There’s a lot of emotion, especially for Sue, Diana and Tamika,” said USA coach Geno Auriemma in reference to the four-time gold medallists. “The way they’ve shaped this team in such a short space of time is remarkable. We’ve only been together for a month. It’s just amazing the way we’ve done things. People are going to be speaking about these Games for a long time.”
In the bronze medal match, Jelena Milovanovic scored 18 points and took seven rebounds to guide Serbia to a 70-63 defeat of London 2012 silver medallists France. After helping to secure the eastern European country’s first ever Olympic basketball medal, the player said: “It means everything to us, more than anything else. It’s our biggest dream.”
The reigning European champions, having beaten the French 76-68 in the 2015 final, the Serbs surged into an early lead, only for their opponents to level the score up at 27-all at half-time, much to the displeasure of Serbia coach Marina Maljkovic. “She was so angry with us,” said Milovanovic, revealing the tone of their half-time team talk. “We realised that it was our one and only chance. She said we shouldn’t let them back into the game, and so we went out in the second half and made sure that didn’t happen. And it didn’t.” Acting on her words, Maljkovic’s charges scored 16 points without reply in the third period to move into a 53-40 lead, with Sonja Petrovic contributing eight of them. Though the French outscored their opponents in the final quarter, the damage had been done, with the Serbs holding on to complete a famous win.
Led by the formidable Kevin Durant, the USA’s men retained their Olympic title in impressive style, beating Serbia 96-66 to win the 306th and final gold medal of Rio 2016 a few hours before the Closing Ceremony. Just as they did at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, Spain mounted the podium once more, though this time to collect bronze.
In winning a third successive Olympic title and their 15th in 19 Games since basketball first appeared on the programme, the United States further erased memories of their underwhelming Athens 2004 campaign, where they only collected bronze. Yet despite the size of their winning margin in the final, Team USA did not have a vintage campaign in Rio, defeating Spain by a mere six points in the semis and earning narrow wins over France, Australia and Serbia in the group phase. All the same, they were never truly in danger of suffering a defeat.
With individual talent making up for any lack of cohesion, the United States had all the firepower they needed. Providing the shooting prowess along with Durant, were Klay Thompson and Carmelo Anthony, who is now the only male basketball player in history with three Olympic golds to his name. Kyrie Irving’s passing skills were also to the fore, while rebound specialists DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus Cousins excelled and Jimmy Butler distinguished himself in defence. With the opposition closing the gap all the time, the Americans certainly needed their players to produce when it mattered.
“There are more top-class teams around than in 2008 and 2012, and their players are used to competing in the NBA now. That made the tournament a lot tighter,” said Mike Krzyzewski, a.k.a “Coach K”, who now hands the national-team reins on to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
After holding their own in the first ten minutes of the final, the Serbs were undone by a combination of the speed of Durant, who scored 18 of his match total of 30 points in the second period alone, stern defence and the grabbing hands of Cousins, who took 15 rebounds in all and contributed 13 points. With the USA 52-29 ahead at the interval, the gold was as good as won.
Remaining well on top in the second half, the Americans and could even afford the luxury of bringing their bench players on in the closing stages, and celebrated victory by dancing on court with Krzyzewski. Oklahoma City star Durant, who will play for Golden State Warriors next season, was Team USA’s leader in Rio. Never shirking his responsibilities, he led his side’s scoring averages with 19.3 points per game, while ensuring his team-mates were also able to get in on the act, with Anthony getting away almost as many shots.
Reflecting on his third Olympic gold, Anthony said: “It’s a very special moment for me. I know this is the end for me now. I’ve been involved in this adventure since Athens, and I’ve seen the best and the worst. And here I am, three gold medals later. We’ve had to fight here in Rio. It wasn’t always pretty.”
Pau Gasol helped maintain Spain’s place on the Olympic podium with a superb performance in the bronze medal match against Australia. The 36-year-old power forward contributed 31 points to his side’s thrilling 89-88 win, missing only three of his 15 shots and collecting 11 rebounds as Spain landed a fourth Olympic medal to go with the silvers they took at Los Angeles 1984, Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
Twelve points clear at one stage in the first period, the Spaniards held only a two-point lead at the interval. And though they invariably had their noses in front in the closing two periods, their advantage never stretched to more than five points. Indeed, they found themselves trailing by a point with just five seconds left on the clock and Sergio Rodriguez lining up two free throws. The point guard held his nerve to put the men in red back in front, and when Australia lost possession on the final play of the match, Spain were able to celebrate another Olympic medal.
Offering sterling support to Gasol in the final were Nikola Mirotic with 14 points and seven rebounds, Rodriguez with 11 points and Rudy Fernandez with 10, while Australia’s compelling push for a medal was founded on Patty Mills’ 30-point contribution. The San Antonio Spurs point guard was left to rue two crucial missed shots in the final 70 seconds, however.
Spain’s latest medal consolidated their status as one of the world’s leading basketball powers and came after a slow start to the tournament, with defeats to Croatia and Brazil sending them into the USA’s half of the draw and ultimately costing them silver. Nevertheless, their golden generation is ageing fast, with the likes of Rodriguez, Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro all over 30, though the irrepressible Gasol has since said he is keeping his national-team career options open.