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U.S. women's basketball team finally together

| Monday, July 28, 2008

DETROIT -- The wait is over.

For the first time, the U.S. women's basketball team will be on the court together Monday at Stanford University to start its quest to win an unprecedented fourth straight gold medal.

"We've been waiting for this day for a long time," two-time Olympian Katie Smith said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "We haven't been on the floor together yet and we don't have a lot of time to prepare, but we have the talent to get the job done."

Clearly.

Three-time gold medalist Lisa Leslie leads a team that also includes experienced players Diana Taurasi, Tina Thompson, Sue Bird and Smith, along with first-time Olympians such as Candace Parker.

"We have a lot of veterans, but we also have some players who will give us a new look," Smith said.

Following four days of practices in Palo Alto, Calif., the team will play in the FIBA Diamond Ball Tournament in China before preparing in Beijing for a few days before its Olympic opener Aug. 9 against the Czech Republic.

"I think Russia and Australia will be our biggest challengers," Smith said, adding that China shouldn't be counted out playing at home. "The Russians got us at the world championships two years ago, so we're eager to get back on the floor with them.

"As the reigning champs, we know everybody is coming after us so we just have to prepare and play with a sense of urgency to be the best every day."

The 34-year-old certainly isn't going to hold anything back because she doesn't plan to put a USA jersey on again after the Beijing Games.

"This will be it," she said. "I've had a great run and have loved the experience of traveling the world to play a game I love."

After leading Ohio State to the NCAA national championship game as a freshman in 1993, she played later that year in the junior world championship in South Korea.

Smith heads into these Olympics with 178 games of experience -- including 112 starts -- with USA Basketball. The Ohio native has averaged nearly eight points and made 40 percent of her 3-point shots while playing for her country.

"She really has put the time in and has played with virtually everyone on the roster," U.S. women's basketball coach Anne Donovan said.

Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones and are certainly glad she's on their team.

"Katie brings a certain toughness," Leslie said. "On the perimeter, she's strong. She can guard. She knows exactly what her role is. She is very consistent."

Toughness was also one of the first words Milton-Jones used to describe Smith.

"When you're going into a hostile environment like the Olympics, you're going to need that. You can't be nice," Milton-Jones said. "When you go out there, you need people like Katie Smith. A tough and savvy veteran, who's going to fight tooth and nail.

"You need an unsung type of hero."

Even though Smith has accomplished just about as much as any woman could on a basketball court -- including helping the Detroit Shock win the WNBA title in 2006, when she was also named to the league's All-Decade team -- her legacy is overshadowed by superstars such as Leslie.

"I've always flown under the radar with the public, but peers and coaches give me respect and recognition," she said. "It's really fine with me because I don't play for any of that kind of stuff. I play to compete and win."

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