Russia turns back skating clock in team event

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SOCHI, Russia – More than any other night at these Winter Olympics, this one belonged to Russia as a skating nation.

As the inaugural team figure skating competition wrapped up with the men’s, ladies and ice dance free skates, Russia saw one of its beloved veterans and a rapidly rising star perform beautifully on the ice, all while a president who rarely shows emotion stood and gave his approval.

It was a night of triumph for the Russian skating tradition, which skidded away from the Vancouver Olympics four years ago with their boots dragging, having won just two of the 12 medals awarded at those Games, its worst haul since the 1964 Innsbruck Games, when, as the U.S.S.R., the nation won one medal at an Olympics where ice dance wasn’t included in the program.

One Russian, Yevgeny Plushenko, put himself into the record books, tying Swedish skater Gillis Grafstrom for the most Olympic medals in figure skating: four.

“I skated for my family, I skated for my country,” Plushenko said in the media mixed zone.

“I feel awesome. I feel great,” Plushenko added plainly. “I’m happy, my wife is happy, my sons are happy.”

So, too, is the whole of Russia, as it reclaimed a figure skating gold of any kind for the first time since Plushenko was the men’s champion at the Torino Games in 2006. The crowd roared as flowers were awarded to the Russians, but most emphatically for Plushenko, who has been through countless injuries, surgeries and at least two semi-retirements.

“The Russians are so strong across all the disciplines,” 1992 Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko, who skated for the Unified team, told NBCOlympics.com. “I think they’re doing a good job.”

A good job might be what Russian President Vladimir Putin would have said, as well. Putin was in attendance for most of the evening, taking in Yulia Lipnitskaya’s skate, as well as that of the ice dance team, Yelena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov. It was unclear whether Putin watched Plushenko skate, as well.

Did Lipnitskaya, just 15, know that the president was watching her?

“Nyet,” she said – no – in response. Then, through a translator: “I didn’t know that the president was there, but even if I knew that he was there, it wouldn’t matter really because the support of the fans was so incredible, so massive for me.”

Lipnitskaya’s score, too, was massive, a 141.51 marking a career-best, 12 points ahead of American Gracie Gold, who was second.

While Plushenko appeared to tire during the second half of his free skate, turning normal triple jumps into doubles, he still won the men’s free skate, ahead of a decent field that included Japan’s Tatsuki Machida and American teenager Jason Brown.

The scene inside the Iceberg Skating Palace was more akin to that of a soccer stadium than figure skating one, dozens of red, white and blue Russian flags unfurled when it was announced that Russia had won the team gold, the first in Olympic history.

While much of the talk leading into Sochi over the last year was of the Russians having struggled in the recent past in figure skating, more medals could – and should – be on their way for the host nation in the individual events. Pairs skaters Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov are heavily favored in their event, while Lipnitskaya is now a threat not only for the podium, but for gold in two week’s time.

MORE: Images of team figure skating event

“Technically, she is so good,” Petrenko said. “I don’t see a weakness in  her skating. She’s doing an awesome job.”

It is then that Petrenko paused to hug Plushenko, who was walking by, the two embracing with pats on the back. That very back – and now a bum leg – will have to hold up physically in two more programs should Plushenko try for a record-shattering fifth Olympic figure skating medal, though he has tough competition to square off against.

“I don’t know if he will skate in the individual event, that’s not my decision,” Plushenko said. “Based on my experience, at his age, it’s very difficult to come out and skate again. I’m proud of Yevgeny and the job that he did – he’s still in good shape. Overall, he had enough to help win a medal here. It will be harder in the individual event. It makes it more interesting. If he feels strong, then we’ll see him next week.

And while Plushenko was the star of the night for the second time in just four days, Lipnitskaya produced the evening’s most aw-shucks moment, grabbing a baseball cap that was thrown onto the ice by a fan and placing the ill-fitting hat on her head.

What did it say?

“Russia.”

U.S., China set for FIBA Women’s World Cup gold-medal game

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SYDNEY — Breanna Stewart and the United States used a dominant defensive effort to beat Canada and reach the gold-medal game of the FIBA Women’s World Cup for the fourth consecutive tournament.

Stewart scored 17 points and the Americans raced out to an early lead to put away Canada 83-43 on Friday, reaching a Saturday gold-medal game with China. The 43 points was the fewest scored in a semifinal game in World Cup history.

“Canada has been playing really well all tournament and the goal was just to come out there and really limit them,” said U.S. forward Alyssa Thomas. “We were really locked in from the jump with our game plan.”

China edged host Australia 61-59 in the later semifinal to reach its first global championship game since the 1994 Worlds, the last time it won a medal of any color. The U.S. beat China 77-63 in group play last Saturday, the Americans’ closest game of the tournament.

“Our goal was to to win a gold medal and we’re in position to do that,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said.

The U.S. (7-0), which is on a record pace for points and margin of victory in the tournament, took control of the game early scoring the first 15 points. The Americans contested every shot on the defensive end as the Canadians missed their first nine attempts from the field. On the offensive end, Stewart, A’ja Wilson and Thomas basically got any shot they wanted.

“I think after that punch, it really took the air out of them,” Thomas said. “They didn’t know what to do with their offense anymore after that.”

MORE: FIBA World Cup Schedule, Results

Laeticia Amihere, who plays at South Carolina for former U.S. coach Dawn Staley, finally got Canada on the board nearly 5 minutes into the game making a driving layup.

By the end of the quarter the U.S. led 27-7. Canada had committed four turnovers — the same number the team had against Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals which was the lowest total in a game in 30 years.

The Americans were up 45-21 at the half and the lead kept expanding in the final 20 minutes. The win was the biggest margin for the U.S. in the medal round topping the 36-point victory over Spain in the 2010 World Cup.

Canada (5-2) advanced to the medal round for the first time since 1986 and has a chance to win its first medal since taking the bronze that year.

“We didn’t get it done today, but what we’re going to do is take this with what we learned today and how we can turn it up tomorrow,” Canada captain Natalie Achonwa said. “It’s still a game for a medal and it’s just as important for us.”

The U.S. has won seven of the eight meetings with Canada in the World Cup, although the last one came in 2010. The lone victory for Canada came in 1975.

The victory was the 29th in a row in World Cup play for the Americans, who haven’t lost since the 2006 semifinals against Russia. The Soviet Union holds the World Cup record with 56 straight wins from 1959-86. This is only the second time in the Americans’ storied history they’ve reached four consecutive gold-medal contests. They also did it from 1979-90, winning three times.

This U.S. team, which has so many new faces on it, is on pace to break many of the team’s records that include scoring margin and points per game. The Americans also continued to dominate the paint even without 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner, outscoring its opponents by an average of 55-24.

Amihere led Canada with eight points.

RECORD BREAKING

The low point total broke the mark of 53 that South Korea scored against Russia in 2002.

“We’re starting to build that identity,” Wilson said of the defensive effort. “We’re quick and scrappy and I think that’s our identity.”

The U.S. is averaging 101 points a game. The team’s best mark ever coming into the tournament was 99.1 set in 1994.

STILL RECOVERING

Kahleah Copper sat out after injuring her left hip in the win over Serbia in the quarterfinals. Copper landed hard on her hip driving to the basket and had to be helped off the court. She hopes to play on Saturday. Betnijah Laney, who also got hurt in the Serbia game, did play against Canada.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup schedule, results

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The U.S. goes for its fourth consecutive title at the FIBA World Cup in Sydney — and eighth global gold in a row overall when including the Olympics.

A’ja Wilson, a two-time WNBA MVP, and Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP, headline a U.S. roster that, for the first time since 2000, includes neither Sue Bird (retired) nor Diana Taurasi (injured).

The new-look team includes nobody over the age of 30 for the first time since 1994, before the U.S. began its dynasty at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The Americans have won 52 consecutive games between worlds and the Olympics dating to the 2006 Worlds bronze-medal game.

The field also includes host Australia, the U.S.’ former primary rival, and Olympic silver medalist Japan.

Nigeria, which played the U.S. the closest of any foe in Tokyo (losing by nine points), isn’t present after its federation withdrew the team over governance issues. Spain, ranked second in the world, failed to qualify.

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2022 FIBA Women’s World Cup Schedule, Results

Date Time (ET) Game Round
Wed., Sept. 21 8:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 82, Bosnia and Herzegovina 58 Group A
9:30 p.m. USA 87, Belgium 72 Group A
11 p.m. Canada 67, Serbia 60 Group B
Thurs., Sept. 22 12 a.m. Japan 89, Mali 56 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 107, South Korea 44 Group A
6:30 a.m. France 70, Australia 57 Group B
8:30 p.m. USA 106, Puerto Rico 42 Group A
10 p.m. Serbia 69, Japan 64 Group B
11 p.m. Belgium 84, South Korea 61 Group A
Fri., Sept. 23 12:30 a.m. China 98, Bosnia and Herzegovina 51 Group A
4 a.m. Canada 59, France 45 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 118, Mali 58 Group B
Sat., Sept. 24 12:30 a.m. USA 77, China 63 Group A
4 a.m. South Korea 99, Bosnia and Herzegovina 66 Group A
6:30 a.m. Belgium 68, Puerto Rico 65 Group A
Sun., Sept. 25 12:30 a.m. France 74, Mali 59 Group B
4 a.m. Australia 69, Serbia 54 Group B
6:30 a.m. Canada 70, Japan 56 Group B
9:30 p.m. Belgium 85, Bosnia and Herzegovina 55 Group A
11:30 p.m. Serbia 81, Mali 68 Group B
Mon., Sept. 26 12 a.m. USA 145, South Korea 69 Group A
2 a.m. France 67, Japan 53 Group B
3:30 a.m. China 95, Puerto Rico 60 Group A
6:30 a.m. Australia 75, Canada 72 Group B
9:30 p.m. Puerto Rico 92, South Korea 73 Group A
11:30 p.m. China 81, Belgium 55 Group A
Tues., Sept. 27 12 a.m. USA 121, Bosnia and Herzegovina 59 Group A
2 a.m. Canada 88, Mali 65 Group B
3:30 a.m. Serbia 68, France 62 Group B
6:30 a.m. Australia 71, Japan 54 Group B
Wed., Sept. 28 10 p.m. USA 88, Serbia 55 Quarterfinals
Thurs., Sept. 29 12:30 a.m. Canada 79, Puerto Rico 60 Quarterfinals
4 a.m. China 85, France 71 Quarterfinals
6:30 a.m. Australia 86, Belgium 69 Quarterfinals
Fri., Sept. 30 3 a.m. USA 83, Canada 43 Semifinals
5:30 a.m. China 61, Australia 59 Semifinals
11 p.m. Australia vs. Canada Third-Place Game
Sat., Oct. 1 2 a.m. USA vs. China Gold-Medal Game