USA beats Puerto Rico
After nine days of games, the FIBA Americas Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament field of 10 teams is down to four, and only three of those four will gain what they came to San Juan, Puerto Rico, seeking -- a qualifying berth for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Already assured of the No. 1 seed for Saturday’s semifinal round, Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs) and Jermaine O’Neal (Indiana Pacers) pounded away inside early, but it was the USA’s (8-0 overall, 7-0 in second round) second half defense that paved the way to the 91-65 victory over Puerto Rico (5-3, 4-3 in the second round) Thursday night in front of a partisan capacity crowd at the FIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament final second round game.
With the win the USA, owning a 24 game win streak in Olympic Qualifying play and an overall record of 67-3 with teams comprised of NBA players, now moves on to the semifinal round that will be played Saturday. Joining the USA in the semifinals and keeping alive the dream of qualifying for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens are Argentina (5-3 overall, 4-3 in the second round), Canada (5-3 overall and 4-3 in the second round) and Puerto Rico (5-3 overall and 4-3 in the second round). Although Argentina, Canada and Puerto Rico finished with tied for second with identical 4-3 records in the second round, based on the FIBA tie breaking formula, Argentina was awarded the No. 2 seed, Canada is No. 3 and Puerto Rico is No. 4.
Saturday’s semifinals will feature Argentina against Canada at 8 p.m. (all times EDT), and the USA will have a rematch with Puerto Rico at 10 p.m. The winners of the semifinal games will qualify for the 2004 Olympics and go on to play in Sunday’s 10 p.m. gold medal game. The semifinals losers will have once last chance to earn an Olympic qualifying berth as the winner of the bronze medal game on Sunday (8 p.m.) will collect the third and final Olympic qualifying spot for the FIBA Americas zone.
The USA’s semifinal game against Puerto Rico will be the third meeting between the two teams since Aug. 17. The two met in an exhibition game in New York on Aug. 17 where the U.S. recorded a 101-74 victory, and they scrimmaged against each other twice prior to the exhibition..
“We got off to a slow start and I think we were a little impatient. But, as the game went on, our defense picked up. We started to share the ball better and we finished strongly. Now, we're looking forward to the medal round,” commented United States head coach Larry Brown (Detroit Pistons).
“We were shooting pretty quickly and we had a lot of open shots and they weren't going down. We took Puerto Rico off the hook. We had them in foul trouble and we decided to settle down and let our defense take over. We had only five assists in the first half, 11 in the second half. Going into the game, we had 234 assists to our opponents 91. So, I think when we started to share the ball, everything worked out,” Brown added.
With Duncan scoring eight and Tracy McGrady (Orlando Magic) adding six points, the United States jetted out to a 16-9 lead. Puerto Rico countered with a 9-0 run to slip ahead 18-16, but at the end of the opening period the USA led 22-20.
Holding a 32-30 advantage with 4:12 to play before intermission, the U.S., getting seven points from Elton Brand (Los Angeles Clippers), scored 10 straight to open a 42-30 lead with 1:52 before half. At halftime the lead was nine, 45-36.
Behind a defense that limited Puerto Rico to just one field goal and two free throws over the first 6:13 of the third quarter, the USA went on a 19-4 tear to take full command 64-40 with 4:03 remaining in the third quarter. During the decisive run, Allen Iverson (Philadelphia 76ers) scored nine points, O’Neal added six and Duncan registered four points.
Puerto Rico scored the final eight points of the third quarter to cut the deficit to 64-48 at the end of three, but that was as close as they would come as the Americans regained control and marched on to the 91-65 victory.
Puerto Rico shot just 4-of-12 in the third quarter.
In a balanced scoring attack by the U.S. that saw all 12 players score, Duncan, in addition to scoring 16 points, added nine rebounds, while Iverson finished with 12 points, and O’Neal accounted for 10 points and nine rebounds.
The game marked McGrady’s return to action. Sitting out the second half of the Virgin Islands game because of a tight back, McGrady missed the USA’s next three games because of the back woes. In Thursday game, he returned to the starting line-up and in 17 minutes of action accounted for six points, two rebounds, one assist and one steal.
“I felt like if I could find the treatment that I do back in Orlando, that I would be fine towards the end of the week,” said McGrady about his recovery. “Coach gave me the opportunity to do my treatment and it healed up pretty quickly. Last night (Aug 28 versus Mexico) I tested it a little bit and I worked out yesterday with my trainer and it felt pretty good.”
In Thursday’s other games, Venezuela (4-4 overall, 3-4 in the second round) stunned Canada (5-3 overall, 4-3 in second round) 93-86 in overtime, Mexico handed Brazil (3-5, 3-4 in the second round) its fourth straight loss 102-92, and Argentina (5-3 overall, 4-3 in the second round) rolled to a 102-72 victory over the Dominican Republic (2-6 overall, 1-6 in second round).
“We took care of business tonight,” said 2000 Olympic gold medalist Jason Kidd (New Jersey Nets). “We've got to be ready on Saturday. These last eight games were for positioning. Now the tournament starts on Saturday. We've got another game against a tough opponent in Puerto Rico again at home. Everybody's trying to qualify for the Olympics so now it's time to get serious.”