It looks like a mismatch of Olympic-size proportion.
The dominant U.S. women’s basketball team, which has won 40 straight Olympic games, seeks its fifth consecutive gold medal Saturday against upstart France, which has never won any medal in women’s hoops.
“They’re a team nobody really talked about heading into the tournament, but personally I knew that was going to be a team we might have to face,” said U.S. point guard Sue Bird.
France is undefeated in the tournament along with the U.S., although the Americans have beaten teams by 34 points a game, France just eight.
Nonetheless, Bird knows a win won’t be automatic.
“I’ve played with all their girls and know how talented they are,” she said.
Both teams are assured of walking away with at least the silver medal, but anything less than gold for the Americans would be considered a monumental failure.
The U.S. has cruised through the Olympics during its impressive run. Only one team has come within single digits of the Americans since the streak started in 1996. They have only lost once in major international competitions since the Atlanta Games — the lone blemish coming against Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 world championship.
The players are aware a loss would be devastating.
“This is USA Basketball’s streak,” Candace Parker said. “We’re just trying not to be the people that end it. I want a second gold medal. There are people that want a third. And some are looking for their first. So all of us are fighting for something in our own way.”
The U.S. faced its first challenge of the London Games in the semifinals when Australia took a four-point halftime lead. It was the first time in 12 years that the Americans had been trailing at the half. There was no panic or worry. They just stepped up their defense and vanquished the Australians, winning by 13 points.
Still, Bird said the Americans aren’t feeling any pressure heading into Saturday’s final.
“We’ve been taking it one game at a time all along, so this is just the next one,” she said. “Obviously there is a lot more at stake, but we really aren’t thinking that way.”
France won’t be playing tight either. The French team has already made great strides — clinching the country’s first medal ever in women’s basketball.
The victory over Russia in the semifinals set off a wild celebration for the unbeaten French, who have been on the rise in women’s basketball over the past few years. They won the European Championship in 2009 and qualified for the Olympics for the first time since the 2000 Sydney Games where they finished fifth. In this tournament France has already defeated Australia in an overtime thriller and now topped Russia twice.
A win over the Americans would be incredible.
“Nobody talks about us. We don’t exist in the Olympic Village,” said French coach Pierre Vincent. “The only way to exist is to win. I told the girls in the locker room, if we win, we will exist.”
The French have been led by flashy point guard Celine Dumerc. She has been the catalyst for this remarkable run. Her 3-pointer with 0.2 seconds remaining in overtime helped beat Britain in the preliminary round. She also hit a big 3-pointer against Australia and two clinching free throws in the team’s four-point win over Canada.
“She’s having a tournament for the ages,” U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said of Dumerc. “She’s definitely been the MVP.”
Bird wasn’t surprised at France’s incredible run to the championship game. After all, the French had been her sleeper team all along.
It will be the first time the two teams have played in the Olympics. France isn’t scared of the world’s top team.
“They are a very good basketball nation. I play against them the whole year round,” French forward Sandrine Gruda said. “It’s going to be good. We’re not going to give up because it USA. We’re competitors.”
It will be the first time since 1996 that the Americans won’t be facing Australia for the gold.