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August 27, 2004 7:04 pm

Argentina knocks U.S. basketball team off pedestal

By KEVIN TRESOLINI

Gannett News Service

ATHENS, Greece - So much for the United States' status as basketball's international superpower.

Argentina chopped down the fading giant in Friday's semifinals at the Athens Olympics, advancing to the gold-medal game against Italy with an 89-81 victory while handling the Americans their third loss of the games. They'd lost only twice in all the Olympics prior to 2004.

The execution was swift and clean at the Olympic Indoor Arena.

Argentina shot 54 percent from the field, including 50 percent on three-pointers. The United States shot 42 percent overall and just 27 percent behind the arc. That has been a pattern for the Americans at these Olympics.

"They shot well and executed well, and that's tough to beat in a 40-minute game," U.S. coach Larry Brown said.

Team USA now plays for the bronze medal against Lithuania, which defeated the Americans 94-90 in preliminary play.

Italy stunned previously unbeaten Lithuania 100-91 in Friday's other semifinal. Argentina will be playing for its first Olympic basketball medal, and Italy its second. Italy won silver in the widely boycotted 1980 games.

"We understand we're not playing for the gold medal, but we still have to represent our country and go out there and fight hard, like it is the gold-medal game," said Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson.

"There's still something special to it. It's still an honor to be over here. I think it's important for us to get it done the best way we can. It's important we come out and fight and make the people proud of us back home."

Argentina's win was heralded by a partisan sellout crowd of 14,500. When the victory was complete, fans sang and waved flags. Some players jumped up on the chairs that comprised the team bench to acknowledge and fuel the cheers. Others took off their shirts and danced at midcourt.

"Today, in our country, talking about sports, is history," said Luis Alberto Scola, who scored 10 points for Argentina.

Argentina guard Manu Ginobili, who plays for the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, scored a game-high 29 points. Four teammates joined him in double figures.

A defeat Saturday would give the United States its worst Olympic finish ever. A win would equal the accomplishment of the 1988 team, whose third-place finish led to NBA players becoming eligible for the Olympics in 1992.

In 14 previous Olympiads, the United States has 12 golds, one silver (1972) and the one bronze.

Stephon Marbury, who had a U.S. record 31 points in a quarterfinal win over previously unbeaten Spain on Thursday, scored a team-high 18 but did not make a three-pointer after getting a U.S. record six the day before. Center Tim Duncan, Ginobili's teammate in San Antonio, fouled out in just 19 minutes and 37 seconds with 10 points and six rebounds.

"For us to have any chance, we had to have an inside presence," Brown said. "I've never seen Timmy foul out in 19 minutes in any game in our league, and I think he fouled out of four here. Aside from that, Argentina played great and deserves a lot of credit."

The game's last tie was at 20-20 late in the first period. Argentina led 43-38 at halftime and quickly extended that to 56-40.

The United States got within six, 60-54, on Shawn Marion's three-pointer from the left corner. But Argentina answered with three three-pointers, and Ginobili turned the last into a four-point play after being fouled. The United States didn't seriously threaten again because it couldn't generate much offense.

"We proved to the world that we are a very tough team, and we made it against the professionals," Ginobili said.

Argentina had beaten the United States in the 2002 world championships before finishing second to Yugoslavia. It lost twice to the United States in Olympic qualifying last year, but that American team had nine NBA stars who are not on this one.

The fact that the U.S. team was hastily assembled has been viewed as one of the prime reasons for its troubles.

"Whether it was enough time, I don't know," Iverson said. "We knew we had to get it done in that time. That's not an excuse. Should it be more time? I know it would help a lot. I know a lot of teams have been together longer than us."

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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE

MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

Olympics 2004 were games of education, enlightenment

More columns by this writer

IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Biggest winner of 2004 Olympics: Greece

More columns by this writer

CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Athens scores satisfying win

More columns by this writer

DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Some U.S. women's teams put on best show in Athens

More columns by this writer

LYNN HENNING | The Detroit News

U.S. basketball team has gone from stars to targets

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BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star

It was Black Friday for U.S.

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