SAITAMA, JAPAN — On July 16, the U.S. women's basketball team lost an exhibition to Australia in Las Vegas, shortly after losing to a team of WNBA all-stars.
On Aug. 4, the U.S. women's basketball team defeated Australia 79-55 in its most dominant performance of the summer, advancing to the Olympic semifinals and offering notice to the rest of the field that reports of its demise were greatly exaggerated.
"I think everybody got the memo, and we knew exactly what had happened,'' Lynx star Sylvia Fowles said. "We didn't talk much about it. We did watch the film. This team is peaking at the right time.''
That time might have arrived in the first quarter on Wednesday. With aggressive half-court defense and a dominating performance from Brianna Stewart, the U.S. went on a 17-0 run and was never again challenged.
The U.S. will play Serbia in the semifinals at 11:40 p.m. Thursday (Twin Cities time). Serbia watched the U.S.-Australia game from the stands Wednesday, leaving as the U.S. pulled away in the second quarter.
The U.S. took control a few minutes into the game. Australia took a 6-4 lead, but Stewart would score 10 first-quarter points andthen the Americans went on their dominant run to take a 21-6 lead.
Stewart scored 10 first-quarter points and finished with a game-high 23, adding five rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots.
"She's a special player and a special person,'' USA forward Diana Taurasi said.
"What she's doing is even more incredible because she's playing out of position,'' USA guard Sue Bird said.
The U.S. led 26-12 at the end of the first. About the only negative for the U.S. was Taurasi committing a foul that was deemed unsportsmanlike when she hit an Australian player in the head.
The U.S. didn't need those kinds of plays to shut down Australia. Their guards applied on-the-ball pressure and Australia rarely looked comfortable on offense. On one first-quarter possession, the U.S. forced Australia into a shot-clock violation that was called just as Stewart blocked a shot at half-court.
The U.S. also pushed the pace with quick outlet and lead passes.
The Lynx representatives on the team played reserve roles. Fowles entered the game in the first quarter and grabbed rebounds on her first two possessions. In 14 minutes, she finished with four points, seven rebounds, an assist and a steal.
Lynx star Napheesa Collier entered in the fourth quarter and played five minutes, grabbing two rebounds. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, an assistant on the U.S. team, has said Collier is healthy but will need to "bide her time'' as part of a powerhouse program.
The Americans' dominance Wednesday bolstered the sentiment often expressed by U.S. players and coaches — that they merely needed time to develop team chemistry.
Accustomed to dominating virtually every Olympic game, the U.S. has been challenged by its lack of practice time together, the cohesiveness of most other national teams, and the pressure of high expectations.
"We haven't had one of these, where we came out and I think everyone, for the most part, gave the effort that we needed,'' Taurasi said. "We're still trying to figure out where we are as a team, mentally, physically, strategically.''
Australia coach Sandy Brondello, who coaches Taurasi with the Phoenix Mercury, said: "We faced a very focused American team. We used to say 'We have Diana Taurasi and you don't.' The U.S. can say, 'We have Brianna Stewart and you don't.' It's obvious that they have the best players, they're all superstars on their own teams.''
Stewart is becoming the star of stars. She's playing in her second Olympics at 26, meaning she could match fellow UConn alums Bird and Taurasi by playing in five Olympics.
Bird is 40. Taurasi is 39.
"It's something we talked about last week,'' Stewart said. "If I'm a five-time Olympian, I'll be 37. That would be younger than the two of them, so it's possible.''
She's two games away from winning her second gold medal, and if she continues to play defense the way she did against Australia, seeing her win five golds would not be a surprise.