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GOLDEN GIRLS OF THE U.S.

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The charge was clear, the response overwhelming.

When Tara VanDerveer was picked to coach the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team, USA Basketball president C.M. Newton held back nothing in spelling out her task."He said this is not about the silver, this is not about the bronze. This is about the gold," VanDerveer recounted.

And gold it became.

Capping an impressive run through the Atlanta Games, VanDerveer's team raced past Brazil 111-87 Sunday night to give the United States its first Olympic gold medal in women's basketball since Seoul in 1988.

VanDerveer and her players were given more time and more money to prepare than any previous U.S. Olympic team, and they set a standard against which all future squads will be measured. They averaged 102.4 points in sweeping past eight Olympic opponents and finished 60-0 counting a worldwide warmup tour that began last fall.

Fittingly, their game was the final event of an Olympics in which American women demonstrated their power as never before.

"We carried a lot on our shoulders and didn't waver," said guard Teresa Edwards, who played in her fourth Olympics and became the first basketball player, male or female, to win three golds. "We deserved the gold medal after what we have been through."

What they did was sacrifice a year of their lives to put the United States back on top of the women's basketball world after disappointing bronze medal finishes the 1991 Pan-American Games, 1992 Olympics and 1994 world championships.

The $50,000 salary paid to the players was less than they would have made in the European professional leagues. VanDerveer spent a year away from her beloved Stanford team to lead the drive to reclaim the gold.

"They were professional, they were mature and they were a lot of fun to be around," said VanDerveer, who was won two NCAA titles at Stanford.

And fun to watch. They hustled from start to finish, dove for loose balls and played as a team while captivating the 30,000-plus fans who turned out for each of their games at the Georgia Dome.

"They stayed for our awards ceremony. They didn't stay for the Dream Team," said guard Dawn Staley, whose no-look passes produced layups for teammates and roars of approval from the crowd. "I think they appreciate the way we always came out and fought hard."

With the gold medal on the line, Staley and her teammates were at their best, dominating the team that had beaten the U.S. 110-107 en route to winning the 1994 world championship.

The Americans shot 72 percent in the first half and 66 percent for the game. They had assists on 30 of their 43 baskets. Center Lisa Leslie made 12 of 14 shots and scored 29 points. Edwards handed out 10 assists. Sheryl Swoopes had 16 points. Ruthie Bolton scored 15, had five assists and five steals and played in-your-face defense on Brazil's Paula Silva, she of the white headband imprinted with "Magic Paula."

The 111 points were the most ever scored in a women's gold-medal game, topping the Soviet Union's 104-73 victory over Bulgaria in 1980.

"This culminated the whole year," Edwards said. "We're soaking in every minute."