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Their journey began in Cincinnati nine months ago and took them
through 39 cities in six countries before landing them on the
biggest stage in sports. On the way to tomorrow's gold medal
game, the U.S. women's basketball team won 59 straight games
along with the hearts of basketball fans, who apparently have
nothing against the concept of Dream Teams. They just prefer to
see them take the hard road to the Olympics.

Yesterday the Americans rolled over Australia 93-71 at the
Georgia Dome to earn a place in the championship game against
Brazil. The 6:35 p.m. showdown will decide the final gold medal
of the Atlanta Games, which is only fitting for coach Tara
VanDerveer's traveling band of basketball gypsies, who have
covered more miles since October than Barnum and Bailey. "I've
been in this city for two weeks now," U.S. reserve guard
Jennifer Azzi said, smiling. "I can't remember the last time I
could say that about one place. This must be home."

The best female basketball players in the U.S. often awoke in
their hotel rooms without a clue as to where they were, but they
always knew where they were headed. The gold medal game has been
circled on their schedule since their tour began, and the long
haul to the Georgia Dome has made them especially determined to
finish the job. "Like I told them at halftime, we've come too
far, we've invested too much to let up now," said VanDerveer.
"This is what we came here for."

In rolling to the championship game, the U.S. women have been
nearly as dominant as the American men, beating their opponents
by an average of 29.3 points while scoring an average of 101.1 a
game. A loss to Brazil would be nearly as shocking as if the
American men were to lose tonight to Yugoslavia. But unlike the
men, the U.S. women have had to work to restore their place in
international hoops. They were upset by the Unified Team at the
Barcelona Games, coming away with a bronze. They also finished
third at the '94 world championships in Sydney after losing to
Brazil 110-107, a defeat that will play no small part in
tomorrow's showdown.

"I remember everything about that game," said VanDerveer, who
had only eight of the current 12 players on that roster. "I've
watched that tape. We just let them light us up. I think that
one game did more for American women's basketball than any other
single game. We knew we had to improve, and that's one reason we
stayed together for a year. We had to get better."

That loss is not the only thing that has fueled the fire within
VanDerveer and her players. The U.S. and Brazil were forced to
share a five-minute bus ride back to the hotel after the game,
and the presence of the dejected Americans did nothing to temper
the Brazilians' celebration. "They were singing, dancing, just
going nuts," said guard Dawn Staley. "It was difficult for us to

Brazil's players even felt the need to follow through on a
pregame bet and cut their coach's hair during the bus ride. "It
was painful," said VanDerveer.

For the Americans, it was the first of many painful bus rides
that eventually led to Atlanta, where the U.S. has won all seven
of its Olympic games. Yesterday a feisty Australian team, led by
the relentless Michele Timms, who had a game-high 27 points,
outplayed the U.S. for the first five minutes, jumping to an
18-10 lead. Then the Americans seemed to hit a switch and crank
their game up a level.

Staley came off the bench and passed off for five assists in
eight minutes. The crowd--from Spike Lee behind the U.S. bench
to the fans in the cheap seats, who were closer to the blimps
than the floor--erupted in support of the Americans, and the
Lycra-clad Aussies were out of luck. A game that was 22-22
midway through the first half was essentially over at the break
as the U.S. took a 47-32 lead. Lisa Leslie scored 16 of her
team-high 22 in the first half, while Katrina McClain ended up
with 18 points and 15 rebounds for the U.S., which had also
beaten Australia in the preliminary round.

"We felt this game would be tough because the Australians know
us like cousins," said Leslie. "But right now I am simply
looking forward to facing the tough competition ahead and trying
to win the gold medal."

Unlike Australia, Brazil is not a familiar foe. It has avoided
playing exhibitions against the U.S. in hopes of grabbing a
psychological edge. The Brazilians beat Ukraine 81-60 in the
other semifinal yesterday. With their enthusiastic, flag-waving
fans sitting amid the American majority, the Brazilians will
assure an electric atmosphere.

"They're an emotional team, so it should be exciting," said
Azzi. "Sometimes you'll see them high-five each other when they
hit a three-pointer, and you'll think they've just won the

While they may not show it after each basket, the Americans will
be every bit as emotional. The tune-up bouts are over; time for
the title shot. VanDerveer will deliver a pregame speech, but it
won't be necessary. "We want our lives back," said Edwards. "But
first, we want to finish the job."

These Dream Teamers have worked too hard, come too far, been
gone too long to let it slip away now. They need one more game
for the gold. This time the Americans plan to do the dancing.

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN In the semifinals Leslie (opposite) sliced through the Aussies for 22 points, and Janeth Arcian did likewise against Ukraine in scoring 11. [Lisa Leslie in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [See caption above--Janeth Arcian in game]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Based on past performances, Maria Paula Silva (left) and Brazil could give the Americans, including Nikki McCray (right), a run for the gold. [Maria Paula Silva in game]

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Nikki McCray in game]