BARCELONA -- The American women's basketball team, dreaming of its own dream team status, ran headlong into the Great Wall of China.
The American women survived, but not without bruises.
China jumped to an 18-12 lead yesterday with its 6-foot-8, 273-pound center Haixia Zheng doing some job of clogging the middle. The U.S. team proceeded to clear the impediment with an American invention called the fast break and raced to a 93-67 victory.
"We've played her before," U.S. coach Teresa Grentz said of Haixia. "You know initially she may have the advantage because of her size and bulk, but there's no way she can stay with you."
The United States was aided in this by Chinese coach Li Yaguang, who took his center out of the game with the Chinese ahead 18-12.
After that, the U.S. team went on a 20-2 run.
Having found their legs, the American women kept on flying after Haixia returned.
"We just had to be aware of where she was," said Cynthia Cooper. "A lot of times you penetrate and create some possibilities. But when you have somebody 6-8 in there, it's hard to be imaginative."
Mere numbers do not do Haixia's size justice. The average woman in the basketball competition is about 5-10 and weighs 175, compared to 6-6, 210 for the men. For a man to be as large relative to the field as Haixia, he'd have to be 7-5, 333.
Matched against her was Katrina McClain, 6-2, 175, spelled by Daedra Charles, 6-3, 190.
"I had seen her before but not standing up," Charles said. "I saw her today and I said, 'Gee whiz!' She had big calves. Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger has calves like those."
Haixia, 25, has been a Chinese Olympian since she was 17. She speaks no English, nor does anyone else in the Chinese delegation but she is cheery and good-natured.
Until the '80s, the Soviet Union dominated women's basketball behind a 7-2 center named Uljana Semenova. The Americans have since left their mark on the game, turning it into one of speed and athleticism.
"I think she [Haixia] takes basketball back 10 years," said Cooper, "back to when they played half court, passed the ball.
"We're disappointed with the way we started the first half. We're disappointed with the way we started the second half [China closed to within 54-50 but the U.S. team struck back with another 22-2 run.] We're happy with the way we ended the game. . . . We wanted to play with some style. We wanted to show this is the way we play."