Ratko Rudic promised one thing to his U.S. squad when it slipped out of medal contention: The suffering will end.

After three years imposing a brutal conditioning regimen he called "suffering," Rudic thinks the Americans are up to the level of Hungary, Russia and Serbia and Montenegro, despite three straight losses to the top European teams.

Aleksander Sapic scored three goals to lead Serbia and Montenegro to a 9-4 win over the United States, ending American hopes of making the quarterfinals. Medal dreams are still driving the world champion U.S. women, who will face Italy in a semifinal today.

The Serbians (4-1) advanced to the next round along with defending champion Hungary and Russia (3-2). The United States finished 2-3.

After placing sixth in Sydney, the best finish the Americans can achieve here is seventh.

"This is better than I expected," said Rudic, explaining the expectations he had in 2001 when he took over as U.S. head coach. "Not this game, but all our participation was very good. For example, against the best team, Hungary, we played the best game.

"So we have a reputation here . . . it's great experience for the players."

Rudic said he was more concerned about how his team responded to the loss than he was about the eventual positions. "It's not important. Seventh or eighth. It's important to know what we need to do before the next Olympics -- that's the most important thing," he said.

-- From News Services

Serbia and Montenegro's Danilo Ikodinovic celebrates against the U.S.