SAITAMA, Japan (AP) — The next challenge for the U.S. in its quest to win a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal is Australia as the Americans Monday night drew their rival in the quarterfinals of the women’s basketball tournament.
The Opals beat the U.S. in an exhibition last month in Las Vegas and will be the latest test for a U.S. team that has been challenged at the Tokyo Games unlike any other time during its gold medal run.
“Australia will be a formidable opponent because we know each other so well and we look forward to the challenge of getting out of the quarterfinals,”” said U.S. coach Dawn Staley. “We certainly have to execute on both sides of the ball and continue to get better to advance.”
The U.S. and Australia are ranked No. 1 and 2 in the world and usually meet later in the Olympics, but the Aussies barely qualified for the quarters. The Opals needed to beat Puerto Rico by 24 points on Monday night to advance after dropping their first two games of the tournament.
Despite their struggles, there won’t be a fear factor for the Australians after the victory over the U.S. in Las Vegas.
“Obviously not the team we wanted to play in the quarterfinals, but we will fight and hope to play our best game,” Australia coach Sandy Brondello said.
Australia has never beaten the U.S. in the Olympics, losing to the Americans in the gold medal game in 2000, 04 and 08. The Australians also lost in the semifinals of the 1996 and 2012 Olympics to the U.S. as well.
The Americans have won 52 consecutive Olympic contests dating back to the bronze medal game of the 1992 Olympics. They went undefeated in group play — albeit not in the dominant fashion the team is used to.
“It’s encouraging to continue to win knowing what we’re faced against,” Staley said. “We are a lot different than what we’ve been in the Olympic Games leading up to this one, in that we have just half of the team that’s been around and then the other half really hasn’t. When your makeup is such, you have a tendency to lean heavily on the people that have done it a whole lot.”
Nigeria became the first team to come within single digits of the U.S. since 2004 and France held an early fourth quarter lead. Still the Americans found ways to win and haven’t lost a game in group play since women’s basketball was added to the Olympics in 1976.
“The countries here at the Olympic Games, they pour into their women’s teams, and now you’re seeing the effects of it,” Staley said. “And that is great women’s basketball play. We know we’re in a dogfight every time we step on the floor. It’s great for those who just put the television on and sit down and watch players that they haven’t seen before, countries that they haven’t seen before, and see them play a great game.”
The other quarterfinals matchups on Wednesday include: Group A winner Spain (3-0) will face France (1-2, third place in Group B), Group C winner China (3-0) plays Serbia (2-1, second place in Group A), and Group C second-place finisher Belgium (2-1) drew a matchup with Japan (2-1, second place in Group B).
The U.S.-Australia winner will play the China-Serbia winner in one semifinal, and the Belgium-Japan winner plays the Spain-France victor in the other. The quarterfinals are win-or-go-home; a victory means teams are assured of two more games — the semifinals followed by a gold- or bronze-medal contest — before leaving Tokyo. The gold medal game is on Sunday.
Japan advanced to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive Olympics and coach Tom Hovasse likes the team’s chances of medaling for the first time in the country’s history.
“Now it’s an open field for us,” he said. “Yeah I’m happy. We have confidence. We’ve beaten pretty much everybody left in the field. If we can play our game and shoot like we did today we’re going to be a tough out for anybody.”