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U.S. gets its ticket to semis validated

Americans pass test with solid 91-76 win over tournament's only other unbeaten, Argentina.

August 31, 2007|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- Thursday's U.S. victory over Argentina in the quarterfinals of the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament wasn't about Beijing.

It wasn't even about Saturday's semifinals when the two winners will get their tickets punched for the 2008 Olympics in China. The U.S., having already qualified for the semis several days ago, will play Puerto Rico Saturday.

No, Thursday's 91-76 victory at the Thomas & Mack Center was about validation for the U.S.

It was about proving that the domination the team had exhibited in its previous seven games -- games against teams that clearly didn't belong on the same court with the Americans -- could be duplicated against the only other unbeaten squad in the tournament.

And while the U.S. point total and margin of victory were the smallest of any game in this tournament, the Americans were still clearly the dominant team, the fourth quarter once again reduced to garbage time.

The U.S. was led in scoring by Kobe Bryant, who had 27 points.

Concentrating on defense and keeping teammates involved, Bryant had been only fourth on the team in scoring through the first seven games with a 15.1 average.

Thursday night, he just about got that many in the first quarter.

Equally effective from behind the three-point line and on his trademark drives to the basket, Bryant scored 15 points in less than eight minutes, hitting six of eight attempts from the floor, including three of four from three-point range. Of the first 20 U.S. points, Bryant accounted for 15 of them.

The fast start electrified the crowd of 7,370, creating a roar that had been noticeably absent on other nights. Even the stars showed up for this one, from Magic Johnson to Evander Holyfield to Wayne Newton.

The U.S. led, 28-13, after one quarter, 49-30 at the half and 73-52 after three quarters.

The U.S. simply overwhelmed Argentina at times. In one sequence, Carmelo Anthony blew a dunk, but LeBron James was there to follow up with a left-handed layup. He also drew a foul and completed the three-point play.

"Not one guy is not trying his hardest," U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "What a lot of people think of NBA players is not right, that maybe they don't work as hard, that they're individualistic. That's what you hear a lot, but these guys are nothing like that."

Puerto Rico qualified for the semis by beating Canada Thursday night, 72-66. The U.S. beat Puerto Rico, 117-78, in their preliminary-round match.

In Saturday's other semifinal game, Argentina will face Brazil, a team it struggled to beat in overtime, 86-79, Wednesday.

In a pregame news conference, NBA commissioner David Stern said that, in the wake of former referee Tim Donaghy's pleading guilty to betting on games and supplying inside information to others, interviews with be conducted with all of the league's referees, the process to be completed by the start of the referees' training camp Sept. 23.

"It's premature to have any expectations," Stern said. "The only expectation we have is that we will speak to each of our officials about what their view of the rules are, what the rules should be, what activities they may have engaged in that were on the wrong side of those rules . . . and [we will] not have an opinion about what we do about that until after we have completed it. In fairness, we don't want to draw any conclusions until we hear everything."

steve.springer@latimes.com

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