FILE - In this photo May 12, 2012 file photo, United States' Diana Taurasi competes against China in an exhibition women's basketball game in Seattle. The U.S. begins its quest for a fifth straight Olympic gold medal against Croatia on Saturday, July 28, 2012, a team the Americans beat 109-55 a week ago in Istanbul.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
LONDON (AP) — The U.S. women's team threw the ball away and struggled from the field. This was one sloppy performance for an Olympic opener.
It also was another victory.
Maybe it was first-game nerves or a hangover from the opening ceremony, but the U.S. didn't look like the powerhouse expected to dominate the London Games until the fourth quarter — when it pulled away for an 81-56 victory over Croatia.
"It's just one game, one day," U.S. guard Sue Bird said. "You have to come to play that day, if you don't anything can happen."
The Americans just beat Croatia by 54 on July 21. Easy victories are expected from this team, which has won 34 straight Olympic contests and four consecutive gold medals.
That didn't happen Saturday.
"There was a little jitters, probably a little sluggishness," Bird said. "For the most part we didn't finish off plays we normally finish off. We allowed a team that when they get going are known to spread out the floor and try to hit as many 3s as they can, stay with us."
Coming into the Olympics, coach Geno Auriemma said he was hoping the Americans could play a style of basketball that would be entertaining and help grow the women's game internationally.
That was certainly not the case at the start of this one.
Despite missing its first 14 shots, Croatia hung tough for the first 30 minutes before the Americans finally pulled away.
"We have five players who have never been in the Olympics before so they are going to be nervous. Everybody was a little nervous," Auriemma said. "We're better than we showed, but I don't know that we're going to be great right off the bat."
The U.S., which has dominated its opponents en route to the last four gold medals, led 53-49 early in the fourth quarter before a 16-0 run put the game out of reach.
Angel McCoughtry started the burst with consecutive layups and Tamika Catchings capped it with a three-point play that made it 69-49. Swin Cash also had a three-point play in the spurt.
McCoughtry finished with 13 points for the U.S., which got back to its hotel at 3 a.m. after Friday's opening ceremony. Tina Charles had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Candace Parker finished with 11 points and 13 boards.
"We know we can play better and will," Parker said.
Jelena Ivezic scored 22 points and Marija Vrsaljko added 19 for Croatia, which was making its Olympic debut. Vrsaljko missed the previous matchup last Saturday as she was getting married.
While the Americans imposed their will on offense in that contest, they struggled Saturday.
The U.S. built a 9-0 lead as Croatia missed its first 14 shots. The Americans could have been up a lot more, but missed a lot of easy shots and turned the ball over. They finished with 21 turnovers.
"Defensively we were great in the first quarter, we were running, blocking shots just couldn't score and that hurts," Parker said. "When you look up at the scoreboard at end of first and it's 9-4, it's deflating. We just have to do better than that."
Actually it was 11-4, but Parker is correct — they will have to play better.
Vrsaljko finally got the Croatians on the board with a lay-in with 2 minutes left in the first quarter. The U.S. built its lead to 21-9 and looked poised to take command before going cold from the floor.
Croatia scored the next 14 points, capped by Luca Ivankovic's lay-in that gave the team its first lead of the game. Ivezic's 3 minutes later made it 26-23.
Diana Taurasi had seen enough, hitting consecutive 3s to restore the Americans' advantage. The U.S. led 31-28 at the half.
"We played very well for 30, 32 minutes," Croatia coach Stipe Bralic. "We played smart and we played good defense. But we played against maybe the best women's team ever. They got 27 second-chance points and that shows you how strong they are."
It was the second straight Olympics that the Americans struggled in their opener. They trailed the Czech Republic 13-2 before winning by 40 at the Beijing Games.
The U.S. men's basketball team, who is also a heavy favorite to win the gold, didn't make the women's opener. It had practice at the same time. The two teams marched together in the opening ceremonies and are staying in the same hotel.
Next up for the U.S. is Angola, which lost to Turkey 72-50 in its Olympic debut. The Americans also will face China, Turkey and the Czech Republic in pool play. The U.S. beat the Czechs in the finals of the 2010 world championship to qualify for the London Games.
The Czech Republic lost its pool opener, falling to China 66-57. Also Saturday, Russia rallied past Canada 58-53, France beat Brazil 73-58, and Australia routed host Britain 74-58.
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