For a few tense moments, the U.S. national basketball team's worst fear was a reality.
In the one game the top-seeded U.S. team needed to win to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the Americans found themselves being handled early by Argentina, a squad the United States had blown out by 31 points just days earlier.
Yet in a span of seven minutes, the United States staged an overwhelming reversal that led to an 88-59 victory over Argentina today in a semifinal victory that assured the team a 14th Olympic berth.
The U.S. team will play for the gold medal Sunday night at 8 against the winner of the other semifinal between Canada and Puerto Rico. The United States, which has won all nine of its games, has defeated both teams already in the tournament.
"We should have done this a week ago but I'm glad we got it over with," Gary Payton said. "We can't let down. We didn't come over here to get in the championship game and lose. One of those teams wants to beat us so they can have bragging rights."
For the first nine minutes today, Argentina did.
The Argentines stifled the Americans on offense by playing a 2-3 zone that is not allowed in the NBA. Players said other teams tried to use the zone against them but were not as successful as Argentina.
The strategy kept U.S. big men Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett from getting the ball close to the basket and kept them from establishing rebounding position.
That allowed Argentina to take a 17-10 lead with 15 minutes left in the first half. The United States tied the score at 23 nearly five minutes later after Garnett converted a three-point play.
Garnett's points ignited a 23-2 run in which point guard Tim Hardaway scored eight points. With Hardaway, Steve Smith and Gary Payton hitting from the outside, the Argentines had to open up their zone, exposing lanes the United States then exploited.
The blitz featured few spectacular dunks. However, the creative passing, particularly from Hardaway, Payton and Smith, spurred acknowledgment from a crowd of less than 5,000.
"We didn't want it to get to double digits," said Hardaway, who had a game-high 17 points. "We stayed with the pressure, picked it up and they missed some tough shots. We were able to get the rebounds and made things happen on the offensive end. Once we really started playing defense, we got our running game going and so long."
The second half was merely a formality as Argentina never got within single digits.
Payton finished with a game-high seven assists and 15 points. Kevin Garnett added 11 points and eight rebounds. Tom Gugliotta had 10 points and six rebounds. The U.S. outrebounded Argentina 36-19.
Alejandro Montecchia and Leonardo Gutierrez had 12 points each to lead Argentina.
"I never thought it would come down to a game like this," U.S. Coach Larry Brown said. "We asked them to play hard, play unselfishly and play the right way. I was thinking, 'What if we did that and we lose?' That is a tough thing to think about."
Once again, the Washington Wizards' first-round draft pick, guard Richard Hamilton, did not play because of a sprained right ankle. If he does not compete in Sunday's gold-medal game, his stint with this Olympic-bound team will end without much glory.
Rookies Elton Brand, Wally Szczerbiak and Hamilton are not expected to be retained for the team that will travel to Sydney. The debate as to who will replace them began shortly after today's game was over.
Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill is projected as a certainty. The other two positions, however, are up for grabs. Miami center Alonzo Mourning, Denver forward Antonio McDyess, Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, Toronto swingman Vince Carter, Philadelphia guard Allen Iverson, Sacramento forward Chris Webber and Cleveland forward Shawn Kemp were mentioned as possibilities.
"I want not only to take our best players but our best guys that will represent what's good for the game," said Brown.