RIO DE JANEIRO — Missing its starting point guard, the U.S. women’s basketball team struggled for a half to find its offensive rhythm before pulling away from France and moving one win away from capturing a sixth consecutive gold medal.
Diana Taurasi scored 18 points and Maya Moore added 15 to help the Americans beat France 86-67 on Thursday night in the semifinals.
It was the closest game of the Olympics for the Americans, who will face Spain on Saturday and advanced without injured guard Sue Bird. Spain and the U.S. played in the preliminary round and the U.S. won that one by 40. The Americans also beat Spain in the 2014 world championship by 13.
Thursday’s game against France was a rematch of the 2012 London Games gold medal contest. The U.S. won that one by 36 points, but had a much harder time in this one without Bird. The point guard sprained her right knee capsule in the quarterfinals and has been listed as day-to-day. She had started every game for the U.S. the past three Olympics and been a calming influence on offense for the Americans.
The U.S. had cruised through its first six games, winning by nearly 42 points a game and scoring at a record pace. Without Bird, the Americans looked discombobulated at times on offense against France. The team that was averaging 105 points and 30 assists was held to just 40 points in the opening 20 minutes and just four assists.
The U.S. held a slim 40-36 at the break, the closest any team had been to the Americans at the half since Australia led them in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics.
But the Americans (7-0) started playing a better on both ends of the court in the decisive third quarter. As the starters were about to take the court for the start of the second half, Bird huddled them up could be seen offering words of encouragement and instructions.
The team seemed to get the message, going on a 14-5 run to start the period, including two 3-pointers by Taurasi that gave the Americans some breathing room. Though the U.S. outscored France 25-8 in the period, it had two 24-second shot clock violations. It was rare in the first seven games if the shot clock ever got under five seconds.
The Americans led by 21 at the end of the third quarter, but France (4-3) didn’t quit. The French cut the lead to 11 in the fourth, but could get no closer.
It was only the second time in Rio that the U.S. didn’t reach 100 points in a game. But it did get the win and now has 48 consecutive Olympic victories.
Marianne Johannes scored 13 to lead France, which will play Serbia for the bronze medal on Saturday.
AP Summer Games website: http://summergames.ap.org/