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U.S.-Australia semi pits women's hoops medal favorites

LOCALS IN LONDON

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Maya Moore fights for a rebound during the Americans' lopsided victory on Sunday.

LONDON — When the U.S. and Australia meet in women's basketball at the Olympics it's usually for the gold medal.

The top two teams in the world have met in the last three Olympic finals, but Thursday they'll square off in the semifinals for the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Games.

The medal count: The Americans have won four consecutive gold medals; Australia three silver and a bronze.

A semifinal, or final matchup with Australia — it's all the same to the U.S.

"Honestly it doesn't really matter when we play them," guard Diana Taurasi said. "We just focus on who's in front of us."

Nobody has posed a challenge to the U.S. on its road to an eighth straight semifinals appearance. The four-time defending Olympic champions have won their six tournament games by an average of 38 points. Teams have been able to hang with them for a half, but the U.S. depth eventually wears opponents down.

They expect a stiffer test from Australia, although the U.S. has won all six of its previous Olympic meetings against the Australians by at least double digits — including a 27-point win in the 2008 gold medal game.

"We're operating on a lot of good cylinders right now," U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said. "That could change. It's all about making shots in the Olympics. We're not going to keep Lauren Jackson and Liz Cambage from getting shots."

While the Americans have their own talented trio of posts with Sylvia Fowles, Candace Parker and Tina Charles to matchup with Australia's size, Auriemma feels the guards will be the key.

"It's always about guard play whether it's back home in the NCAA tournament or here. The big guys run to a spot, but somebody's got to get the ball up the floor and get those guys the ball where they want it," Auriemma said. "If you have really good guards who can do that you have a really good team. We have some really good guards."

Even though they have had their way with Australia, the Americans are wary of what's at stake.

"I think the semifinal game for whatever reason is sometimes harder," U.S. point guard Sue Bird said. "They've been even more competitive than some of our gold medal games. This point the four teams left are very good teams. It's no surprise that these four teams are in this situation. Everyone's trying to get the chance to win a gold medal."

A gold medal is one of the only thing lacking from Jackson's impressive resume. She's won a world championship, two WNBA titles and is now the Olympics all-time leading scorer in women's basketball. Yet she's come up just short in her three Olympic appearances, winning the silver medal each time.

Unlike her previous Olympic trips, Jackson has seemed more excited that the Australians have made it this far rather than expecting a gold medal matchup with the U.S. The Australians have already had the two most memorable moments in women's basketball at the London Games. Belinda Snell hit a 50-foot heave to send a game into overtime and Liz Cambage had a dunk against Russia, which might have been the first in Olympic history.

Australia came into the London Games off a disappointing fifth place finish at the 2010 world championship. The Australians are missing star guard Penny Taylor, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament in the Euro League finals in April. They lost a pool game to France — the first time they were beaten by a team other than the U.S. in the Olympics since 1996.

"The last four years we've had since Beijing, there have been a lot of changes in our program," Jackson said. "Being in the semifinals and being a medal contender is huge for us. Obviously America is going to be a huge task for us. We'll go out there and play tough and do what we can to beat them. They're a hard team to beat for us. We'll see what happens you never know."