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THE DEFENSE RESTS EARLY BUT U.S. RALLIES PAST RUSSIA

The U.S. women's basketball team has won the gold medal in three of the last four Olympics. They are deep, experienced, extraordinarily skilled and favored to repeat as champions. The only thing remotely wrong with them is they are not the Dream Team.

The men's team is invincible. It is an exhibition, a high-wire act. If the men ever trailed at halftime of an Olympic game, there would be a stampede of American journalists to the hoop venue. The women are very good, but they are still beatable, still capable of being tested for an entire game.

The women's team had one of those nights Wednesday. They came out flat against a highly skilled and motivated Russian team and actually trailed by eight points late in the first half. Then they applied themselves on defense and wore down the Russians, 88-77, to remain unbeaten after three games.

"I thought our defensive intensity in the second half really shut them down," said center Lisa Leslie, who scored eight of her game-high 18 points in the final six minutes. "We said at halftime that we needed to pick it up on defense. They were getting too many open shots. We weren't doing enough to disrupt them."

The Americans weren't doing much of anything defensively in the first half. Anna Arkhipova, Russia's 5-foot-9 point guard, shredded the U.S. with her passing and outside shooting as Russia jumped to a 45-37 lead. The U.S. women cut the deficit to three by halftime, and then they came out with a renewed commitment to defense in the final 20 minutes. They played the Russians tighter, taking away their passing lanes. They trapped Arkhipova in the halfcourt offense, forcing her to give up the ball. And they clamped down on the Russian big women in the low post.

Sheryl Swoopes, the U.S.'s top player, asserted herself at both ends of the floor -- driving to the hoop for easy baskets, forcing turnovers, saving balls from going out of bounds. Swoopes, who stars for the Houston Comets of the WNBA, finished with 16 points. Yolanda Griffith, a 6-3 forward from the Sacramento Monarchs, also had 16.

Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, the 33-year-old off guard, provided a big spark off the bench. Bolton-Holifield, who was brilliant in the gold medal game in Atlanta four years ago, seems to save her best for the big moments. With the U.S. leading, 58-57, she came off the bench and hit a three-pointer to build the lead to four points.

Moments later, she nailed another three-pointer and a baseline jumper to give the Americans their largest lead, 68-58. Russia never got closer than five points the rest of the night.

"Ruthie is clutch," said backup point guard Dawn Staley. "I'd put my money on her any time to hit a three-pointer late in the game. She's proven time after time she can hit them when we need it most."

Before the Games are done, she might have to do it against the host Australians, also known as the Opals. The Aussies, led by 6-4, 19-year-old center Lauren Jackson, are also unbeaten after three games. Playing before 20,000 screaming home fans in a gold medal game, they would be a formidable adversary for the U.S. women.

Staley and Leslie said it could prove valuable, in the long run, to have been tested by the Russians this early in the tournament.

"Yes, it's a great opportunity to work on things we need to improve on," Leslie said.

"Anytime you're playing the Russians or the Australians or the Brazilians, it helps you learn their tendencies," Staley said. "If it had been a 20-point game at the half, they would have just packed their bags."

They seemed to be rationalizing an uneven performance, but they had a point. Like any championship team, the U.S. women could stand to be pushed now and then. Unlike their Dream Team counterparts, there are times when they actually seem human.

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