Down one point to Australia with 3:12 left in the third quarter, USA coach Geno Auriemma made his first wave of subs reinserting Connecticut Sun center Tina Charles into the game along with Seimone Augustus and (about 20 seconds later) Lindsay Whalen into the game. About a minute later, he inserted with Sun forward Asjha Jones into the game along with Maya Moore at the 2:02 mark with Whalen at the free throw line.
After the point when Whalen hit those two free throws until the 7:05 mark in the fourth quarter – about a five minute span – the U.S. went on a 13-5 run, culminating with what ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel selected as the Play of the Game: Moore stealing the ball from 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage and getting an uncontested fast break layup that forced a timeout by the Australians.
Yet the significance of the defense of Sun teammates Charles and Jones in USA’s 86-73 win over Australia simply can’t be underestimated, as described by teammate Diana Taurasi who left the game with 3:18 left after picking up her fourth foul.
At that point in the game, we needed someone to come in and stick Lizzie (Cambage), which, I think, Tina, if there was one person that changed the game, it was Tina taking it upon herself to stop Cambage. And I think Asjha took it upon herself to guard Lauren (Jackson) in a way that made it difficult for her to get some things off.
USA statistical MVP: Tina Charles’ game-changing defensive intensity
While Minnesota Lynx teammates Augustus, Moore, and Whalen have already drawn praise for bringing their WNBA championship-caliber chemistry to London, the defensive play of Charles and Jones – that has helped the Connecticut Sun establish themselves as the top defensive team in the Eastern Conference in the first half of the 2012 WNBA season – was just as significant in shifting momentum in favor of the U.S.
After scoring 19 points in the first half, the U.S. held Cambage scoreless in the second half and limited Jackson to being mostly a rebounder during the time she played during that critical five minute span. A lot of it was simply not allowing Cambage to get the same type of position on either post ups or rebounds to score easily while playing a zone defense in the second half – in addition to holding Cambage scoreless, the U.S. held her without an offensive board in the second half. Cambage also finished with 7 turnovers in the game, but shutting her down in the second half began with Charles being a bit more physical with her from the start of the second half – even picking her first two personal fouls of the game in about the first two minutes of the third – and teammates making it their priority to help.
Yet Charles also appeared to be a bigger part of the offensive effort as well – as a team that has dug holes for themselves early in games previously by resorting to one-on-one play and/or contested jumpers, they definitely made getting the ball inside more of a priority early on and though it didn’t pay immediate scoring dividends for Charles – she only had 4 of her 14 points in the first half – she also picked up two assists in the first half and another in that critical five minute span in the second half.
Their increased effort to get the ball inside early was a positive sign as they look toward tomorrow’s gold medal game against France. But as usual, it’s hard to ignore the significance of defense in winning the game.
Key statistic: Australia committed four turnovers in a five-minute second half span
The turnover story has been significant for the U.S. throughout the Olympics, but it was particularly huge during that five minute span that changed yesterday’s game – Australia committed four turnovers in that five-minute span, three of which were from Cambage and Jackson. For perspective, the Opals committed 15 turnovers in the other 35 minutes of the game.
With the turnovers coming from the posts, it’s hard to overstate the importance of Charles and Jones on the interior in making that happen with their defense. But on the flip side of things, the U.S. guards also deserve some credit – although Charles led the team with her 4 assists, the combination of strong defense and steady ball handling in the second half really helped to swing the game’s momentum in their favor in the second half.
Key player: Sue Bird leads the team in scoring efficiency
With Cambage and Jackson neutralized in the second half, Australia failed to maintain their rhythm to respond to the run by the U.S. But on the other end of things, the U.S. just brought in another wave of players after that timeout with seven minutes left, led by four-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Tamika Catchings and two-time WNBA champion Sue Bird at point guard followed by Taurasi and Candace Parker a couple of minutes later.
As Voepel wrote, Bird’s stat line wasn’t exactly spectacular, but her 3-pointer with 5:10 left in the game put the U.S. ahead by 12 and then she set up Parker for the basket that put the U.S. up by 13, their biggest lead of the game and ultimately the final margin. Although she only had a couple of assists, Bird’s scoring performance gave her a team-high 81.25% true shooting percentage and her 13 points were second most on the team.
But once again, the U.S. showed that the combination of defense and depth is just too much for opponents. And it seems as though it just takes finding the right combination of players game to game to break it open, as they did for those five minutes during the second half yesterday.