A half-time pep talk from injured captain Sue Bird helped lift five-time defending champion United States over France 86-67 and into the Rio Olympic women’s basketball final against Spain.
The Americans, last beaten at the Olympics in a 1992 semi-final, improved to 88-1 over the past 20 years in global tournaments and stretched their Olympic win streak to 48 games.
Spain secured a first-ever Olympic women’s basketball medal by beating European champion Serbia 68-54 in the other semi-final.
They will face the Americans on Saturday while France and Serbia play for bronze.
US women are 9-0 in world and Olympic play against Spain, including a 103-63 rout in the Rio group stage.
“It’s going to be a different game Saturday,” US forward Angel McCoughtry said.
“They are going to watch a lot of film and make some adjustments to frustrate our attack.”
The US women, who haven’t won an Olympic game by less than 13 points since the 2004 semi-finals, led only 40-36 at half-time in the rematch of the 2012 Olympic final.
“I was panicking at half-time,” McCoughtry admitted.
But Bird, out with a right knee sprain and uncertain for Saturday, helped calm her teammates, many of whom had adjusted roles in her absence.
“Sue showed amazing leadership in the locker room, just saying, ‘Stick with it, it’s a long game, play hard defence,'” US guard Lindsay Whalen said.
The US women opened the third quarter with a 9-2 run and scored 11 consecutive points late in the period for a 65-44 lead and France never threatened again.
“It wasn’t pretty but we came up with the win,” US center Sylvia Fowles said.
Diana Taurasi scored 18 points, Maya Moore added 15 and Fowles added 12 points and nine rebounds for the Americans while Isabelle Yacoubou led France with 14 points.
“We knew as a team we could do some things,” Yacoubou said.
“We stayed close for 20 minutes. I’m proud of my team. We never give up. We fought to the end. I hope we have this energy to go for the bronze.
“People are starting to see they are not God. They miss. They get frustrated. We will play them now more like an opponent not like fans.”
Spain’s Alba Torrens and Astou Ndour each scored a team-high 14 points to subdue Serbia and ensure no worse than a silver medal.
“Being in the Olympics is amazing and to win a medal, it’s a dream,” said Torrens. “We worked really hard to get to this moment. Today, it paid off.”
Spain, runner-up to the US in the 2014 World Championships and third in last year’s European tournament, improved to 6-1 in Rio.
“We didn’t talk about medals before we came,” Torrens said. “We knew we would have to fight every game the difficult way. We fought. We worked.
“At the end, we got what we wanted.”
– ‘We need… a little revenge’ –
Despite the defeat, Serbia can capture its first women’s hoops medal by defeating the French in Saturday’s bronze medal matchup.
“We’ve got to put this game out of our minds,” US-born Serbian forward Danielle Page said.
“We still have a chance to do something special and make history for Serbia. We need to focus on the opportunity we have rather than the opportunity we lost.”
It will be a repeat of last year’s European championship final that the Serbs won 76-68, their first win in four tries against France.
“We need to get a little revenge for that,” French center Sandrine Gruda said.