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2012 SUMMER OLYMPICS: U.S. women's hoops team overcomes sloppy play, beats Croatia

The U.S. women's basketball team looked vulnerable in its 81-56 win against Croatia but still  hung on for its 34th straight Olympic victory.

The U.S. women's basketball team looked vulnerable in its 81-56 win against Croatia but still hung on for its 34th straight Olympic victory.

Olympic roundup of Saturday's events

BEACH VOLLEYBALL

The Olympics’ sexiest sport opened with a raucous debut, mixing in a little local flair with all of the more traditional trifles that have made the event one of the most sought-after tickets in London (though Sir Paul McCartney managed to get one for the afternoon session).

A dance team in bathing suits jiggled for the sold-out crowd during timeouts, while rock music nearly drowned out the pealing of Big Ben.

Located just inside the gate used by the queen — and only the queen — to ride up to Buckingham Palace, the beach volleyball venue offers views of the London Eye, the Big Ben clock tower and 10 Downing Street.

Americans Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, who are trying for a third consecutive gold medal, beat Australians Tasmin Hinchley and five-time Olympian Natalie Cook in the final match 21-18, 21-19. The No. 2 U.S. men’s team of Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb needed just 33 minutes to put away South Africans Freedom Chiya and Grant Goldschmidt.

BOXING

Americans Joseph Diaz Jr. and Terrell Gausha posted impressive victories on the first day of the boxing competition.

Diaz looked sharp in a 19-9 victory over Ukraine bantamweight Pavlo Ishchenko in the tournament’s opening bout, while Gausha knocked down Armenian middleweight Andranik Hakobyan twice in the final 7 seconds of his middleweight bout, winning by stoppage with no time on the clock.

Georgian middleweight Merab Turkadze forfeited his evening bout after failing to make weight, allowing Algeria’s Amine Mohammed Ouadahi to win by walkover.

TABLE TENNIS

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates will be thrilled when they get the news: 16-year-old American Ariel Hsing is into the second round in Olympic table tennis.

She defeated Yadira Silva of Mexico in four straight games on the opening day. With none of the top 16 players and favored Chinese entering competition until the third round, Hsing made the most of her first Olympic appearance.

Buffett met Hsing when she was only 9 and two years later invited her to play against shareholders at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting. She returned earlier this year after winning a spot on the U.S. team and took a few points off Buffett and Gates.

VOLLEYBALL

Destinee Hooker had 21 points and the United States held off late-charging South Korea 3-1 in their opening match.

The fans at Earls Court chanted “Des-tin-ee! Des-tin-ee!” at one point as she dominated in the 25-19, 25-17, 20-25, 25-21 victory.

The U.S., which won the silver medal in Beijing and is ranked No. 1 in the world, jumped out to a 17-11 lead in the first set after one of Hooker’s seemingly effortless spikes, helping set the tone for the match.

Kim Yeon-koung had 29 points for South Korea, which rallied in the third set but ultimately fell short.

ARCHERY

Italy won the gold in the men’s team event, beating the U.S. by one point on the final shot. It was America’s first medal of the games.

Michele Frangilli, Marco Galiazzo and Mauro Nespoli hugged and raised their hands in celebration after the final arrow beat the U.S. 219-218 at Lord’s Cricket Ground. It was Italy’s first-ever gold in the event.

ROWING

The United States and Germany won heats in the blue-riband men’s eight, leaving a host of top crews to vie for places in the final.

Only one crew progresses from each heat. The Germans, unbeaten in three years, finished a half length ahead of Britain at Dorney Lake. Olympic champion Canada came in last in a race fit for the final.

The U.S. beat Australia by a half length to reach Wednesday’s final, which should be one of the regatta highlights.

LONDON — The U.S. women’s basketball team looked nothing like the squad that is expected to dominant the Olympics.

Maybe it was first-game nerves or a hangover from the opening ceremonies. The U.S. had to overcome a sloppy performance Saturday before finally putting away Croatia 81-56 in the opener.

Coach Geno Auriemma had said he was hoping that the Americans could play a style of basketball that would be entertaining and help grow the women’s game internationally. That didn’t happen Saturday.

“We have five players who have never been in the Olympics before so they are going to be nervous. Everybody was a little nervous,” Auriemma said. “We’re better than we showed, but I don’t know that we’re going to be great right off the bat.”

The U.S., which got back to its hotel at 3 a.m. after the opening ceremonies, struggled for the first three quarters before winning its 34th consecutive Olympic contest.

“There was a little jitters, probably a little sluggishness,” U.S. guard Sue Bird said. “For the most part we didn’t finish off plays we normally finish off. We allowed a team that when they get going are known to spread out the floor and try to hit as many 3s as they can, stay with us.”

The victory was far different than the 54-point pounding the Americans gave Croatia a week earlier.

Despite missing its first 14 shots, Croatia hung tough for the first 30 minutes before the Americans finally could pull away.

The U.S., which has dominated its opponents en route to the last four gold medals, only led 53-49 early in the fourth quarter before a 16-0 run put the game out of reach.

“Bottom line is this is the Olympics,” Bird said. “A win is a win, regardless of how it works. Beauty is you can learn from it. Now we know what we need to work on.”

Angel McCoughtry started the burst with consecutive layups and Tamika Catchings capped it with a three-point play that made it 69-49. Swin Cash, who hadn’t played in the first few quarters also had a three-point play in the spurt.

McCoughtry finished with 13 points. Tina Charles had 14 points and 10 rebounds; Candace Parker finished with 11 points and 13 boards.

“We know we can play better and will,” Parker said.

Jelena Ivezic scored 22 points and Marija Vrsaljko added 19 for Croatia, which was making its Olympic debut. Vrsaljko missed the previous contest last Saturday as she was getting married.

While the Americans had their way on offense in that contest, they struggled Saturday.

The U.S. built a 9-0 lead early on as Croatia missed its first 14 shots. The Americans could have been up a lot more, but missed a lot of easy shots and turned the ball over. The U.S. finished with 21 turnovers.

“Defensively we were great in the first quarter, we were running, blocking shots just couldn’t score and that hurts,” Parker said. “When you look up at the scoreboard at end of first and it’s 9-4, it’s deflating. We just have to do better than that.”

Actually it was 11-4, but Parker is correct — they will have to play better.

Vrsaljko finally got the Croatians on the board with a lay-in with 2 minutes left in the first quarter. The U.S. built its lead to 21-9 and looked poised to take command early before going cold from the floor.

Croatia scored the next 14 points, capped by Luca Ivankovic’s lay-in that gave the team it’s first lead of the game, 23-21. Ivezic’s 3 minutes later made it 26-23.

Diana Taurasi had seen enough, hitting consecutive 3s to restore the Americans’ advantage. The U.S. led 31-28 at the half.

“We played very well for 30, 32 minutes,” Croatia coach Stipe Bralic. “We played smart and we played good defense. But we played against maybe the best women’s team ever. They got 27 second-chance points and that shows you how strong they are.”

It was the second straight Olympics that the Americans struggled in their opener. They trailed the Czech Republic 13-2 before winning by 40 at the Beijing Games.

The U.S. men’s basketball team, who are also heavy favorites to win the gold, didn’t make the women’s opener. They had practice at the same time. The two teams marched together in the opening ceremonies and are staying in the same hotel

Next up for the U.S. is Angola, which lost to Turkey 72-50 in its first Olympic debut. The Americans will also face China, Turkey and the Czech Republic in pool play. The U.S. beat the Czechs in the finals of the 2010 world championship to qualify for the London Games.

The Czech Republic lost its pool opener, falling to China 66-57. In other early games Saturday, Russia rallied past Canada 58-53; France beat Brazil 73-58; and Australia routed Britain 74-58 later Saturday night.

Serena, Federer back at Wimbledon for Olympic openers, both cruise to victory

WIMBLEDON, England — When Serena Williams completed her first-round Olympic victory, the tall spectator in the front row near the Royal Box rose, smiled and added her lusty applause to the roar from the Centre Court crowd.

Michelle Obama liked what she saw Saturday at Wimbledon. The first lady sat with Williams’ family during the 6-3, 6-1 victory over former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic of Serbia.

Williams met with Obama after the match.

“Before, I would have been too nervous,” Williams said. “We talked about how I loved her dress. She’s always looking good.”

Williams looked good, too, picking up where she left off three weeks earlier, when she won her fifth Wimbledon title.

Also happy to be back on grass was Roger Federer, playing for the first time since he won a record-tying seventh Wimbledon title. The top-seeded Federer failed to convert three match points in the second set but recovered from a jittery stretch to beat Alejandro Falla of Colombia 6-3, 5-7, 6-3.

Federer, a fourth-time Olympian, and Williams have yet to win an Olympic singles medal.

While the two Wimbledon champions fared well on the opening day of play, the grass at the All England Club took a troublesome toll.

Areas along the baselines reseeded after Wimbledon deteriorated quickly, making the courts slick and causing players to slip and fall.

By the end of the first match on Centre Court, before Williams or Federer stepped onto it, skid marks and barren patches were visible at both ends.

“The grass is a wee bit slippery, but you’ve just got to deal with it,” Williams said. “Get ready to slip and slide, whatever it takes. The area at the net didn’t wear out so much. Maybe a lot of the players will start coming to the net.”

That would be a change, but then much is different about this particular tournament at Wimbledon. The club was more colorful, thanks to purple backdrops and a waiver of the rule requiring players to wear mostly white. Federer donned a red shirt, Williams went with a blue dress and Falla opted for yellow.

The atmosphere was also more festive, beginning with a morning concert by the Pet Shop Boys on the picnic hill overlooking the grounds. The Centre Court crowd did the wave during changeovers and was more inclined to hoot and holler.

“Wimbledon is so quiet. You know, you don’t hear much talking,” Williams said. “But here you do hear talking. This atmosphere I didn’t expect. It’s bananas, and I love it.”

Bananas might be a slight exaggeration, but there was a fair buzz with matches on 11 courts.

Four-time Grand Slam champion Kim Clijsters won her Olympic debut by beating Roberta Vinci of Italy 6-1, 6-4. Former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova and former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic also advanced.

American John Isner won in his first Olympic match, making the most of a 15-inch height advantage to beat Olivier Rochus of Belgium, 7-6 (1), 6-4. The 6-foot-9 Isner had 24 aces; the 5-6 Rochus had one.

Three other U.S. players lost Olympic debuts — Ryan Harrison, Donald Young and Christina McHale. Isner and Andy Roddick were eliminated in doubles, while top-seeded Bob and Mike Bryan won.

Crowds were smaller than for Wimbledon, with stands on the outer courts less than half full at the start of play. Centre Court was almost at capacity for Williams’ match, although four of the six rows in the Royal Box were empty at one point.

To the left sat Obama, who sometimes chatted between points with Williams’ sister Venus. Serena had met the first lady before and was advised she would be in attendance.

“They asked me did I mind if she sat in the family box,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘Of course not. Please, it would be my honor.’ I mean, I love Michelle.”

As was the case during Wimbledon, Williams won with a dominating serve. She hit eight aces against Jankovic, lost only 10 service points and faced no break points.

The winner of 14 major titles and two gold medals in Olympic doubles, Williams said the incentive to win the singles is different from a Grand Slam event.

“Let’s face it, tennis players play to win Wimbledon,” she said. “We play to win Australia. We play to win the U.S. Open. The Olympics is a bonus. So sometimes you get the bonus; sometimes you don’t.”

Federer also tries to downplay his drive to win a singles medal, but there’s no question being ousted in the first round while ranked No. 1 would have been a bitter loss.

He was never on the verge of defeat of Falla but twice squandered leads. Federer seemed on his way to a routine win until Falla rallied serving at 3-5, love-40 in the second set.

“He hung tough, and I got nervous,” Federer said. “It was a tough set to lose for me, particularly in the situation I was in. That’s the beauty of the game. Sometimes you’re one point away, and the next thing you know, you’re 25 points away.”

Federer also blew a 2-love lead in the final set, but had the crowd roaring with a succession of deft shots down the stretch. He’s now 264 points from a gold medal.


U.S. cruises to lead in men’s gymnastics qualifying

LONDON — The Americans insisted for months they can contend for the Olympic title in men’s gymnastics.

Another night like this, and they won’t need to say a word. The color of their medals will do the talking for them.

While perennial gymnastics powerhouses China and Japan bobbled and wobbled their way through qualifying Saturday, the Americans proved they’ve got the big skills to back up their big hopes. They didn’t count a single fall, and their final score of 275.342 was almost three points ahead of resurgent Russia.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make it finish like that,” team captain Jonathan Horton said. “I was actually joking … earlier, ‘Can we just get the medals now?’ But we’ve got one more day to go, and we’re pumped about it.”

The team final is Monday. Since 1997, when scoring began starting anew in the final, only three first-day winners have failed to finish atop the podium at either the Olympics or world championships.

Surprising Britain, which has a full men’s at the Olympics for the first time since 1992, hung onto third place after upstaging China in the first of the day’s three sessions. Germany is fourth.

Japan, the heavy favorite coming in, is fifth after several uncharacteristic errors by three-time world champion Kohei Uchimura. Defending Olympic champion China, which has won the last five world titles, is sixth after a splat-filled day. Ukraine and France rounded out the top eight.

“We studied a lot about the American team already,” said Japanese coach Yasunori Tachibana, who sent a scouting party to last month’s Olympic trials. “So we knew it was going to be pretty tough.”

Unlike qualifying, when teams get to drop their lowest score, there will be no margin of error in Monday’s final. Teams compete three gymnasts on each event, and all three scores count. Botch one routine, and it could be the difference between going home with a gold medal or a souvenir T-shirt.

But the Americans believe they’re actually better built for that high-risk, high-reward formula, and this performance will only fuel their confidence that they can join Bart Conner and his Golden Gang of ’84 as the only U.S. teams to win the Olympic title.

Danell Leyva posted the highest individual score while John Orozco was fourth, and the team had the highest total on floor exercise and high bar. They had only three falls the entire day, and counted only four scores below 15. Every American — Leyva, Orozco, Horton, Jake Dalton and Sam Mikulak — made at least one individual final.

“Now is when everyone is finally, completely realizing how much we believe in it and today was definite huge proof of that,” Leyva said.

The day didn’t look so promising at the start, when Horton went spinning off pommel horse, his worst event and the team’s. But the Americans have an unshakable belief in themselves, and they barely blinked at the miscue. Mikulak, Leyva and Orozco followed with stylish sets more typical of the Japanese or Chinese, and wound up finishing their toughest event in decent shape.

After slowly closing the gap on each event, the Americans finally took the lead with one high bar routine more dazzling than the next.

Orozco set the tone, getting such great air on his release moves he could almost make eye contact with the folks hanging out on the first concourse. Horton was up next. He’s been struggling on high bar the last few months, but there was no cover-your-eyes-and-hide-the-children scariness this time. Once, twice, three times he tossed himself up and over the bar, flipping and twisting before coming down and easily grabbing it.

When his feet hit the mat with a solid thud, he pumped his fists and smiled.

“I jumped up there, man on a mission-type thing,” said Horton, who stood at the edge of the podium afterward and popped his uniform so everyone could see the “U-S-A” across his chest. “I was really aggressive. I caught all my releases really well — my last one was just kind of finger-tipped.”

Leyva closed the show, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd with his big release moves. When he did a little hop while in a handstand, the audience actually laughed.

With more than a point lead over the British, the Americans let loose on floor exercise. An admiring murmur rippled through the crowd when Leyva, balancing on his hands, pulled his legs up and over his head so his knees touched his nose. When he finished, his stepfather and coach, Yin Alvarez, yelled, “That was super good!”

Dalton capped it off with a routine that rivals all others for power and elegance. He actually looked as if he might go out of bounds on one tumbling run, but had the presence to pulls his toes back, almost as if he was retracting them back into his feet.

“It was kind of an exclamation point to end the day,” Mazeika said.

Fans at the O2 Arena — where American flags, T-shirts and signs seemed to be everywhere — erupted in applause when the final scores were posted. The U.S. men looked up from their huddle and noted the marks with a few fist pumps.

“We definitely can carry on the confidence,” Mikulak said. “We just want to stay humbled to make sure we go out and perform to the best of our ability.”

The Japanese, meanwhile, need to figure out how they got so far off track.

Normally so graceful and precise that coaches use DVDs of their routines as teaching tools, the Japanese looked disoriented. Kazuhito Tanaka made four big errors in his first three events, including a botch on high bar that left him wildly swinging one-handed, like a child on the monkey bars.

Uchimura’s performance was downright baffling. The only man to win three world titles has been so sublime since winning the silver medal in Beijing that Germany’s Philipp Boy, runner-up at worlds the last two years, has joked he was born in the “wrong age.” That Uchimura would cement his status as the greatest gymnast ever with the all-around title was all but a given.

But he fell on high bar, not even getting close on a release move. He then spun off pommel horse, getting up with a baffled look. He rallied from there, however, and wound up a shocking ninth in the individual scoring.

“I think more or less we all were thinking about how China was doing today, so it might have affected our performance,” Uchimura said through a translator.

The Chinese have run roughshod over the gymnastics world for much of the last decade. But Chen Yibing and Zou Kai are the only holdovers from the Beijing gold rush, and China is no longer in a class by itself.

China’s air of invincibility took its first hit at last year’s world championships, where the Chinese finished behind Japan and the United States in qualifying. Yes, it was only qualifying, and they still left the event as they always do — with index fingers held high in the air and gold medals around their neck. But it was the first time since Athens that they failed to finish first in every phase of a major competition.

A reduction in team size, from six gymnasts in Beijing to five in London, hurt the Chinese even more. After building their team around one- or two-event specialists for so many years, they’ve been left with gaping holes in their lineups.

What hurt the Chinese most Saturday was simple sloppiness — shocking for a team once known for its impeccable execution. Chen’s parallel bars routine wouldn’t cut it for a high school gymnast. Zou Kai, the reigning gold medalist on high bar, barely made the final after a routine that was almost indifferent. Guo Weiyang, pressed into service Wednesday after 2004 pommel horse gold medalist Teng Haibin dropped out with an arm injury, fell on his face on his dismount on floor exercise.

“We’re not really disappointed because it’s been four years and the competitors are improving, there’s less discrepancy in their level,” Chen said through a translator. “We are still confident in the final.”