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US 94, ARGENTINA 86

O'Neal, US block upset

SAN JUAN -- He was on the floor in Indianapolis last September when the automatic winning came to a crashing halt. If anyone wanted another shot, another chance, another crack at Argentina, it was the Indiana Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal. He got it last night and he made the most of it, leading the United States to a tough 94-86 victory over Argentina in the Olympic qualifying tournament.

O'Neal was the star of stars for the Yanks, scoring 22 points, collecting 10 rebounds, and registering a monster block in the closing minutes when the game was very much in doubt. Along with inside buddy Tim Duncan's now obligatory 19 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists, the US was able -- barely -- to hold off the team that 50-plus weeks ago ended its 58-game unblemished record in international competition with NBA players.

"It feels pretty good right now," said O'Neal, who was 7 of 13 from the field. Asked if it in any way made up for last year's loss, he said, "I don't think that will ever wear off. When people look back on the first team that lost, I'm still going to be on that team. But I also want to be on the team which wins the [Olympic] gold medal."

O'Neal and Elton Brand are the only two players on the US team who were there for the losses to Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Spain in the 2002 World Championships. O'Neal had one decent game in the entire tournament -- and it was not against Argentina. He came out last night and scored the US' first 6 points to signal that this time, at least for him, it was going to be different.

"He went to the basket. He went to the boards. He went after blocked shots. He played like an All-Star," said US assistant coach Gregg Popovich.

O'Neal could only hope the same would be true for his team. The Americans had won their previous four games by an average of 39.8 points. But most figured Argentina would be a different animal. And it was.

"We respect them, but we are not afraid of them," said Argentina guard Pepe Sanchez. "We're not afraid of anyone."

The US couldn't run away in this one, perhaps because, as Popovich noted, "Argentina is a basketball team. We are a collection of very good basketball players trying to become a team. We're not there yet."

Popovich was a major rabble-rouser before the game; he had been an assistant in Indianapolis and, as he put it, "I just won an NBA championship and I think more about [the loss to Argentina] than I do about the championship."

The US never led by more than 9 points, trailed by 4 in the third quarter, and twice was tied in the fourth quarter, the final time at 74 with 6:42 left.

Argentina hung around and hung around. Old friend Ruben Wolkowyski was knocking down threes (did Jim O'Brien know about that?). Fabricio Oberto was converting turnarounds over Duncan and O'Neal. Manu Ginobili was getting to the basket to make things dicey while the always maniacal Andres Nocioni was scoring inside and outside.

Argentina got within 87-83 with 2:35 to play and Allen Iverson lost the ball. The Argentines worked the ball to Oberto, who appeared to have an easy layup. But along came O'Neal, who viciously swatted away the attempt, leading to a Vince Carter basket. That begat a 6-0 US run that effectively put the game away.

"I didn't think we had enough, but we were right there in the last two minutes," said Ginobili, who had 16 points. The day before, Ginobili had said it would be "almost impossible" for his team to win. He added yesterday that his opinion was based more on his team's recent tough schedule than the supposedly vaunted Americans.

"This is not the time to put our head down and relax," O'Neal said. "There's a long road ahead and we still may see them in the championship round."

That, of course, is both the hope and the expectation here. Four teams will make the medal round; the US has games remaining against Mexico and Puerto Rico and is a shoo-in. So, too, are the Argentines. The two could easily match up again Sunday night for the gold medal. By that time, both will have qualified for Athens, which is the raison d'etre here for everyone.

Everyone, that is, except O'Neal and his teammates. They want to win it all. That would go a long way toward accelerating the healing process. . . .

The US once again was without Tracy McGrady, who is idled by a sore back. McGrady attended the game in street clothes and said he doubted he'd be able to play for the remainder of the tournament. "There's nothing I can do right now," he said. "The best thing is to get my strength back and rest. If I continue to play, it's just going to make matters worse. So I am just going to sit out, probably for the rest of the week, unless something really happens where I can play."

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