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BOB RYAN

Argentina isn't crying over loss

SAN JUAN -- Forget Indy. With this team, USA is still the King of the Americas until further notice. But that still makes Argentina the Crown Prince.

It all changed for Argentina once they knocked off the Americans at last year's World Championships. No one else will ever be able to say they had been the first team to defeat the haughty NBA version of a Team USA. There will always be one, and only one, first time. Any student of international basketball knew the NBA was going to lose eventually, but Argentina was not near the top of anyone's Hit Man list.

But the Argentines did it, and there was nothing fluky about it. They shot, and, surprisingly, defended well, and they won it by a fair-and-square 87-80 score. They'll cherish the memory of that great Indianapolis evening to their graves.

What Argentina did not do was win the championship. By the time it played Yugoslavia in the title game, star guard Emanuel Ginobili had sprained an ankle, and it was not the same team. It just didn't have enough firepower to get the job done against the seasoned Serbs, falling, 84-77, in overtime.

The point, however, had been made. Argentina basketball was a major international force.

And when you're a force you become a target. Argentina found that out in a big way Wednesday night here at the Tournament of the Americas. Expecting a nice rollover victory in its opening game, Argentina got a big surprise from unheralded Mexico. Final score: Mexico 91, Argentina 89.

Oops.

"It was a tough, tough, tough loss for us," admitted point guard Pepe Sanchez following yesterday's bounce-back 91-60 dispatch of neighboring Uruguay. "We never expected to lose that first game to Mexico. Now we know we've got to fight for every game if we're going to qualify."

It was an interesting day for the former Temple star. After playing his usually solid floor game, he came out to the mixed zone in order to converse with the Argentina media, which, it turned out, had some news for him. Guess what, Pepe? You've just been traded.

OK, most NBA fans weren't even aware of Pepe's nine-game experience with the Detroit Pistons. But it happened. Now if something else is going to happen for the lefthanded point guard it will be in the Bay Area. Pepe was the apparent throw-in on a deal that sent veteran Cliff Robinson to Golden State and brought swing man Bob Sura to Auburn Hills.

"I don't know what to make of it right now," Sanchez said. "They've got [Nick] Van Exel and, what, Speedy Claxton? Guess I'm the third point guard again. But we'll see. Nick's kind of a 2 and a 1."

If Sanchez seemed relatively unfazed, it's because Momma Sanchez didn't raise a fool. Pepe already has been a Hawk, a 76er, and a Piston in his brief professional career. He knows the drill. "I'm a little bit surprised," he shrugged. "But in the NBA I'm a commodity."

True enough. But in the international arena he is a top-flight point guard, and he is a key player for Argentina, which has the same team that did so well last year. These guys can play. Losing to Eduardo Najera and the rest of the Mexican squad was an embarrassment, but it wasn't a catastrophe. The Argentines will have time to recover. The only thing that matters in a setup like this is making it into the medal round.

The Argentines are deep enough to win here when a great talent such as Ginobili is no offensive factor. He had one basket against Uruguay, but his taller mates more than made up for his passive offensive effort. Argentina's big men were way too much for Uruguay.

Ginobili hopes the Mexican game was the only wake-up call his team will need. "I hope so," he said. "I prefer to learn a lesson when we win. We did not play with the same mentality we had in Indianapolis. We've got to get it back, or else we won't qualify."

That's why we've all assembled here, of course. No one cares about a trophy, or even temporary bragging rights. Three teams will leave here with tickets punched to Athens and seven will go home in very bad moods.

The Argentines are realistic. They'll always have Indy, but they're not brash enough to think they're the favorites here, not when Team USA has shown up with a lot more heavy artillery than it had last summer. Tim Duncan alone makes a huge difference. Throw in Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, and Allen Iverson, and we're talking about a very different scenario for the other squads.

"They're unbelievable," said Sanchez. "But we think we can compete with them. Of course, every time you play against the best players you tend to raise the level of your own game. That's what happened to us against Mexico."

In the Argentine minds, they shouldn't even be here. They believe they would have beaten Yugoslavia with a healthy Ginobili, and thus would have earned the automatic Olympic berth that goes with the World Championship. They carried that swagger into the Mexico game. What they forgot to do was bring their A-game.

Yesterday's game with Uruguay was a Have-vs.-Have-Not affair and Argentina didn't fool around. Hey, this business of being the Hunted takes a while to comprehend.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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