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ATHENS 2004

Not by a Longshot

U.S. suffers second loss of the Games, 94-90, as Lithuanian guard who missed at Sydney comes through in a big way down the stretch.

August 22, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — A stake in the heart of U.S. men's basketball was delivered Saturday by a player who was inches from doing it four years ago in Sydney.

The U.S. team wasn't eliminated from the Athens Olympics, despite a second loss in the qualification segment of a tournament it used to win just by showing up. But the 94-90 stunner that Lithuania slapped on the U.S., and the way it did it, left the Americans dazzled and dazed.

With 2 minutes 47 seconds left in a game that had been generally well played by an American team that is young and facing a tough learning curve about international basketball, Team USA had an 84-81 lead. It had run off to 10-point leads three times but could never quite shake a Lithuania team that has mastered the high screens and physical style of international play.

Still, when 6-foot-4 guard Sarunas Jasikevicius gathered up a loose ball just beyond the three-point line, the U.S. looked as if it would hang on and win. But the 28-year-old Jasikevicius, the former Maryland player who has been one of the top pros in Europe for years, changed that in an instant.

He got new Laker Lamar Odom to go for a head fake, then went up into Odom's body while flinging a shot on a line at the basket. Somehow, it went in. With the ensuing free throw that completed a four-point play, Lithuania was ahead, 85-84.

Jasikevicius wasn't done.

Allen Iverson missed a three-pointer, Saulias Strombergas grabbed the rebound and the ball went quickly to Jasikevicius, who made another three-pointer to make the score 88-84.

He wasn't done.

Richard Jefferson, the anchor and leading scorer for the U.S. with 20 points, countered with a three-pointer. But the ball got back to Jasikevicius, who made another three-pointer.

And he still wasn't done.

With Lithuania ahead, 91-87, and 56 seconds left, he was fouled and sank two free throws.

In 1:51, Jasikevicius had scored 12 points, completing his game-high 28, and had left the legendary U.S. Olympic basketball program facing a situation it never had before -- certainly not since it started sending the pros to the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992: two losses in the same Olympic tournament.

With the heroics came irony.

In Sydney four years ago, in a semifinal game between the U.S. and Lithuania, Jasikevicius missed a long three-point shot with his team trailing by two and time running out. The next night, Team USA won yet another basketball gold medal.

Jasikevicius has been questioned about that moment for four years.

"I told you guys then, and I'll tell you now," he said. "I never thought about it for two seconds after that shot. I never had a chance to make it. There was no way, so why let it bother me?"

Asked how he had managed to go undiscovered by the NBA, Jasikevicius played it coy.

" ... Hey, these NBA GMs know what they are doing. They know what they see and what they want," he said. "It is the greatest league in the world, and apparently I'm not good enough to play in it. I respect that. They are probably right."

Larry Brown, coach of the U.S. team, was asked if Jasikevicius might not be the best point guard in the world right now.

"No, he's not," Brown said. "He's a great international player, but a lot of the things they do in international basketball you'd never get away with in our league."

That logic works two ways, of course.

While Lithuania improved to 4-0 in Group B, the U.S. fell to 2-2. The Americans, who missed 11 of 33 free throws, have one pool-round game left, Monday afternoon against winless Angola and have already qualified for the quarterfinals, because pool play here eliminates only two teams in each group.

Once there, however, it seems clear the U.S. will be challenged again. The Americans are no longer invincible, and everyone knows it.

"My players," Lithuania Coach Antanas Sireika said, "they started the game poorly. I don't think they believed they could beat the U.S. team. But then, when it stayed close and they saw it was possible, they started to play harder."

Said Jasikevicius, who made seven of 12 three-pointers and nine of 14 shots overall: "It was funny tonight. On the bus coming over here, it was like, just a normal game we were going to. We know now that, if we play well and the U.S. is not playing its best, we can win.

"We never used to think that."

*

In other Group B games Saturday, Puerto Rico improved to 3-1 with an 87-82 victory over Australia (1-3) and Greece (2-2) defeated Angola, 88-56, clinching the U.S. quarterfinal berth.

In Group A, Spain (4-0) defeated Serbia and Montenegro (1-3), 76-68; Argentina (3-1) defeated New Zealand (1-3), 98-94, and Italy (2-2) defeated China (1-3), 89-52.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Three-falling

Comparing the three-point shooting of Team USA and its first four opponents:

*--* USA OPP. 3-24 vs. Puerto Rico 8-16 4-21 vs. Greece 8-19 3-17 vs. Australia 12-26 8-21 vs. Lithuania 13-27 TOTALS USA 18-83 (.217) Opp. 41-88 (.466)

*--*

Los Angeles Times

Hoop Dreams

Despite the loss to Lithuania, the U.S. men's basketball team still made it into the medal round because the top four teams from each Group advance to the quarterfinals:

GROUP A STANDINGS

*--* Team W L Pct x-Spain 4 0 1.000 y-Argentina 3 1 750 y-Italy 2 2 500 China 1 3 250 New Zealand 1 3 250 Serbia & Montenegro 1 3 250

*--*

GROUP B STANDINGS

*--* Team W L Pct x-Lithuania 4 0 1.000 y-Puerto Rico 3 1 750 y-United States 2 2 500 y-Greece 2 2 500 Australia 1 3 250 Angola 0 4 000

*--*

x-clinched group title y-clinched quarterfinal berth

*--* Monday's Games * New Zealand vs. Spain * Lithuania vs. Australia * United States vs. Angola * Serbia & Montenegro vs. China * Italy vs. Argentina * Greece vs. Puerto Rico

*--*

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