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U.S. women’s basketball one step closer to seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal

The United States women’s basketball team came to the Olympic Games with one mission: a seventh consecutive gold medal. The roster ranges from five-time Olympians Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi to six players competing in their first Summer Games. So far, some of the first-timers have been big contributors. And in Friday’s 79-59 semifinal win over Serbia, everyone got to play.

Now there’s one last test: Saturday’s Olympic final (10:30 p.m. ET), against either Japan or France. Will the nerves be any different now, or have the Americans moved into cruise control?

With the big prize this close, there might be little more nervousness, especially for those who haven’t stood on an Olympic podium before. But in both the quarterfinal win over Australia and Friday’s triumph, the U.S. women took everything up a notch, especially their defense.

That said, they had some lapses on offense that will keep coach Dawn Staley and the players vigilant, because they haven’t crossed the finish line yet.

“I think since we entered the knockout rounds, we’ve come to each game with a little more focus,” Bird said. “So you’re seeing the results. And most of it is starting on the defensive end, and we’re just carrying that with us onto the offensive end.

“As usual, with USA Basketball, when we come together, we try to get on a path where we’re just getting better and better every day on the journey. I still think there’s another level we can get to and I hope that’s what happens in [the gold-medal game].”

Here is a look at what stood out in the semifinals and what we’ll be watching for in the final.

More players are looking confident

A’ja Wilson has been one of the best players in the tournament, and hasn’t looked like an Olympic first-timer at all. She will be playing for gold on her 25th birthday, which could make it especially unforgettable.

The Americans didn’t need as much from Wilson on Friday; she had just nine points, the first time in Tokyo that she didn’t score in double figures. But she played just less than 18 minutes against Serbia, after being on court just 15:45 vs. Australia. So Wilson will be very fresh for the final.

Another first-timer, guard Chelsea Gray, stepped forward again Friday, with 14 points on 5 of 6 shooting from the field. It was her best scoring output of the Olympics, and came after an eight-assist performance in the quarterfinals.

Bird joked just before the U.S. women headed to Japan that it was kind of funny to call someone like Gray an Olympic “rookie.” She has been in the WNBA for seven seasons, has won a league title and has played a lot overseas. Still, it is Gray’s first Olympic tournament, and that’s unlike anything else. That players like Wilson and Gray are looking this good going into the final is good news for the Americans.

Did we say defense enough times?

The U.S. women kept repeating in their brief training time that this team, once it started to come together, was going to be a defensive force. It took until the medal round for it to be dominant, but it has happened just as predicted.

Serbia hasn’t been an offensive juggernaut in Tokyo; 77 points in the quarterfinal win over China was the Serbs’ high for this tournament. But Team USA held Serbia to 30.3% shooting from the field, and 21.1% (4 of 19) from behind the arc.

“We made it hard for Serbia’s team to get off clean looks,” Staley said.

Stewart and Griner keep coming up big

Breanna Stewart and Brittney Griner were Olympic rookies in 2016, but they’ve looked like seasoned vets in Tokyo. Each has disappeared for short stretches during the tournament, but only briefly. Overall, they’ve been two of the forces hardest for opponents to stop.

Both had double-doubles against Serbia: Griner with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Stewart with 12 and 10.

“I think we’re gonna see some really good basketball in the gold medal game,” Griner said. “I love the intensity; I love how it’s just tradition. The culture of the USA program is what keeps people coming back.”

The drive for five is nearly complete

Bird and Taurasi have not wanted these Olympics to be about them anymore than the rest of the team. But considering the history they are trying to make as the first basketball players to win five gold medals, they also know the focus in inevitable.

Taurasi had to battle injury to be ready to play in Tokyo. And while she’s not 100 percent, acknowledging her hip was bothering her a bit Friday, the confidence she brings never wanes. She didn’t score in 12.5 minutes of playing time Friday, but had four assists, including one no-look to Stewart that was one of the best assists of the Olympics.

Bird, who struggled with her shot earlier in the Games, hasn’t had that problem in the medal round. She was 3 of 4 from the field against both Serbia and Australia for a combined 17 points, and also had a combined nine assists.

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