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Broken bones, black eyes and bad intentions

Aug. 07, 2008, 8:50 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The Australians were talking about broken bones, black eyes and bad intentions. The Americans weren't biting, which was probably for the best because they wouldn't want to be accused of that, too.

And to think, women's basketball used to be such a civilized affair.

Not any longer. Not in this Olympics, at least.

A few weeks after WNBA players brawled on the court, the two favorites for Olympic gold did some verbal jabbing and counter-punching of their own following a tune-up game that left Australia's Penny Taylor with a badly bruised eye and the rest of her team with some bruised feelings.

The only things missing were some gloves and promoter Don King gleefully crowing from the podium, "These girls really don't like each other."

Actually, that's not true if you listen to the Americans, who say they were just doing their job in Tuesday's game in Haining, China.

It just so happens the job description in women's basketball these days calls for playing physical defense.

Don't blame the players. Celebrate the progress.

The men, after all, have been doing it for years.

"You've got a lot of athletic, strong women going after each other," Katie Smith said. "Nothing dirty, just a hard-fought game."

A bit too hard fought for the tastes of the Australians, who took exception to the bumping and shoving and, yes, even an occasional elbow as the U.S. women ganged up with the singular mission of stopping an unstoppable force in reigning WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson.

They did it well enough to hang on for a 71-67 win in the final of the FIBA Diamond Ball tournament, but don't bother inviting the teams for dinner until the Olympics are over.

That includes Jackson, the 6-foot-5 force who also toils for the Seattle Storm.

"People have to stop us somehow, and that's the way they're going to stop us, especially people like us, Penny and myself and Belinda Snell, who you just can't let go to the basket because we'll kill people," Jackson said.

"So they're going to really stop us any way that they can and generally that's when black eyes and broken bones occur."

As King might say, them's fighting words. Except the Americans didn't seem in much of a mood to fight.

"That's not who we are or how we play," forward Tina Thompson said. "I don't have a black eye but I do have bruises. That game was two days ago and I'm still sore."

U.S. coach Anne Donovan blamed the referees for letting the game get out of hand and disintegrating into one of the roughest she had ever seen. But she was unwavering in the commitment her hastily thrown together team has made in its defensive intensity.

"If we don't play defense we don't win the gold," Donovan said.

There's an outside chance that just might not happen in these games, though the U.S. has won the last three gold medals and is riding a 25-game Olympic winning streak. Three of those came against Australia, including the gold medal finals in the last two Olympics.

But Russia is a force here and Australia holds the wild card in Jackson, who is no stranger to rivalries, both real and imagined. In the 2000 Olympics in her home country, Jackson yanked the hair extension of American star Lisa Leslie in a bitterly contested game, beginning what would later become a fierce competition between the two in the WNBA.

"They can have the hair," Leslie said later. "We got the gold."

Leslie said Thursday that she and her teammates weren't all that concerned with what the Australians thought of the game, and instead were trying to concentrate on beginning defense of their gold medal Saturday in an opening game against the Czech Republic.

Anyone involved in women's basketball, though, had to be secretly thrilled with the attention paid the dustup, just as they were with the WNBA brawl in Detroit. While Kobe Bryant and his U.S. men's teammates arrived in Beijing to shouts from adoring Chinese, the women could walk on the streets downtown and the only reason anyone would notice is because they're so tall.

But women's basketball has come a long way in just a short time even though the WNBA still struggles to gain a foothold in the United States. Women can make a living - and a very good one - playing ball around the world now and the gap between the top national teams has narrowed to a point where most Olympic games are competitive.

They play faster and harder. With that intensity comes some hurt feelings, and sometimes some hurt.

In this case it was a black eye for Taylor, and a suggestion that Thompson deliberately threw an elbow to cause it.

"Actually it was a screen," Thompson said. "Just a screen."

Just more proof that the men aren't the only ones who can play games.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org

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