The kings of USA basketball may be dead, but the queens are alive and well and still rulers of their domain.
Saturday afternoon, 24 hours after the U.S. men's team was defeated in the semifinals at Olympic Indoor Hall, the U.S. women stepped onto the same court and extended their era of excellence, winning their third consecutive Olympic gold medal and fifth in the seven Games in which they've participated with a 74-63 victory over Australia.
For Dawn Staley, the 5-foot-6 guard and U.S. captain, the Athens Games had come full circle. It was Staley who led her country as the flag bearer at the opening ceremony.
And it was Staley clutching her third gold medal on the final weekend.
"A storybook ending," she said.
And truly an ending. After the game, the 34-year-old Staley announced she was done with the Olympics as a player.
If so, she went out while still operating at peak efficiency. Staley had 14 points Saturday, making four of five from the field and six of seven from the free-throw line, and also serving in her usual capacity as floor leader.
While Staley now has a glittering collection of gold medals, forward Tina Thompson, who had a game-high 18 points, proudly displayed her first. She has been waiting four years to get her hands on it, since a knee injury sidelined her before the 2000 Games.
"This was my time," she said after Saturday's game.
Thompson made her biggest impact at the most crucial time for the U.S., early in the second half when Australia made a big push to take a four-point lead after trailing since the opening minute.
The U.S. women were under no illusions about the talent of their opponents. The Australians had a 7-0 record coming into the game, matching the U.S. mark.
Australia's star player, Lauren Jackson, had been quoted as saying this was the matchup she and her teammates had wanted all along.
"Because of that, this game couldn't come fast enough," Staley said. "We wanted to suit up again right after we played [Russia on Friday in the semifinals]."
The desire of the U.S. women for gold had been heightened by watching their male counterparts lose their semifinal game to Argentina.
"That gave us a little extra something," Sheryl Swoopes said, "to prove to the rest of the world that we do have the best players. From the time the ball was tossed up, we were not going to let anything stop us from accomplishing that."
Lisa Leslie, who also plays for the Sparks, was still shaking her head Saturday at the U.S. men's loss a day earlier.
"I was shocked," she said. "Even when the men were down by 10, I kept thinking, they've still got time. When they lost, I knew we did not want to have that same feeling."
But when Australia took a 34-30 lead with just under seven minutes to play in the third quarter, it seemed as if that same sinking feeling was seeping into the U.S. women's team.
That's when three veterans -- Staley, Leslie and Swoopes -- rallied their teammates. "We said, 'OK, it's time. Let's get everybody on the same page. We've got to get the job done,' " Swoopes said.
Between them, Thompson and Staley scored the next 13 U.S. points.
"Tina was amazing," Leslie said. "They put [Australia's Suzy Batkovic] on her in the second half and Tina recognized the mismatch. She had patience, poise and got any shot she wanted."
Said Swoopes: "Tina hasn't always gotten the recognition. But if she hadn't been on the floor, we wouldn't be as happy as we are now."
Australia was again on top by four late in the third quarter, but a three-pointer by Diana Taurasi and four points by Shannon Johnson gave the lead back to the U.S. as the quarter ended, and the Americans wouldn't be caught again.
While the U.S. was able to ignite its offense, its ability to defuse Jackson was just as important. Jackson, who had averaged 24.4 points in the previous seven games, wound up with 12 Saturday, making only four of 16 from the field.
"It was a pleasure for me to guard her," said Leslie, who also led her team in rebounds with eight. "We caused her problems, made her shoot tough shots, took her out of her comfort zone."
But not on the boards. Jackson's game-high 14 rebounds, along with teammate Penny Taylor's 16 points, helped keep the score close until the U.S. pulled away in the fourth quarter.
When it was over, the U.S. players paraded around the arena, displaying the flag. Unlike other recent events in these Olympics, there was not a boo or an anti-American chant to be heard.
"It takes you back to your childhood," said Staley, "when you played for pride. We played for the pride of our country."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Leslie vs. Jackson
Perhaps the most intense individual rivalry in women's basketball was revisited Saturday when Lisa Leslie of the U.S. lined up against Australia's Lauren Jackson. It marked the third time in four years they have met in championship events. Their performances in those games, along with their averages in all other games in those tournaments:
U.S. defeated Australia, 74-63,
in the gold-medal game
*--* LESLIE JACKSON Pts Reb Pts Reb 13 8 12 14 16.0 8.0 24.4 9.4
2002 world championships
U.S. defeated Australia, 71-55,
in the semifinals
*--* LESLIE JACKSON Pts Reb Pts Reb 24 13 9 8 16.4 7.5 23.9 5.1
U.S. defeated Australia, 76-54,
in the gold-medal game
*--* LESLIE JACKSON Pts Reb Pts Reb 15 9 20 13 15.9 7.7 15.3 7.7
Note: In 12 head-to-head meetings in the WNBA, Leslie has averaged 21.8 points and 9.6 rebounds, to Jackson's 16.4 and 6.1, with Leslie's Sparks winning eight of the 12 games. The will meet again Friday at Staples Center and Sept. 18 in Seattle.