Argentina 89, United States 81

-- When it was over, and that goal of a gold medal -- once thought to be a birthright in the United States -- had passed, the American players struggled to leave the court at Olympic Indoor Hall. They have one more game at these Olympics, but it will be for bronze, a notion that once seemed as foreign as the international game feels now.

The U.S. men's basketball team lost to Argentina on Friday night in the Olympic semifinals, an 89-81 decision that was at once predictable and stunning in its ramifications. For only the second time in Olympic history, the U.S. men -- who had struggled before they even arrived in Athens -- won't play for gold.

"We just couldn't get it done," guard Allen Iverson said. "They were a better team than us."

If there was one point driven home during this tournament, it is that exactly. Nearly every opponent the Americans played was every bit as good as them, if not better. The landscape is simply not as it was for the previous 68 years, during which time the Americans had lost just two games in Olympic competition. In this tournament, they have lost three times to teams that not only don't fear them, but believe they can beat them.

"Our rival today was extremely tough," Argentina Coach Ruben Magnano said. "But in the few hours that passed between yesterday's game and today's, we realized that nothing was impossible. We had to go out there and attack them on an equal footing, go for them. That's what we did, and that's why we won."

Argentina was just the latest in a line of teams with that kind of confidence. Manu Ginobli, a guard for the San Antonio Spurs, was brilliant, scoring 29 points, hitting 9 of 13 shots from the field. The Argentines seized a lead with 2 minutes 26 seconds left in the first quarter, built it to 16 in the third, saw it whittled to seven -- but never relinquished it.

Thus, Argentina, which has never won an Olympic medal in men's basketball, will face upstart Italy for the gold Saturday. Team USA will play Lithuania -- to which it has already lost in this tournament -- for a spot on the medal stand.

"We came here for a medal," Ginobli said. "This will be exciting. We play a team we know we can beat. The possibilities are thrilling."

So thrilling that the Argentines couldn't contain their unbridled joy after the final buzzer. They leapt into each other's arms, some ripped off their shirts, and they met at center court, where they jumped, skipped and fairly danced.

Most of the U.S. players, however, left the arena without sharing their feelings on the loss. The hurt showed on their faces. Lamar Odom stood near center court, watching the Argentines celebrate, not wanting to return to the locker room.

"It's disappointing," U.S. Coach Larry Brown said.

The disappointment began early, when center Tim Duncan -- the Americans' best player, the man through whom they ran their offense -- got into foul trouble, as he had in almost every game in the tournament. In international play, players are disqualified with five fouls, so when Duncan picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the third quarter, things began to slip away.

Duncan, the former NBA MVP and a teammate of Ginobli on the Spurs, leads the United States in scoring for the tournament at 13.9 points per game. But he has averaged only 26 minutes -- and played just 19 against Argentina -- because of foul trouble. He hasn't been able to determine exactly how the international referees would call each game, Brown said, and he ended up fouling out with five minutes remaining and the U.S. team down 11.

"I watched every game," Brown said. "I don't know if there's a pattern except getting him on the bench. That's the only pattern I saw. . . . We're not the same team without Tim Duncan."

There is, still, the question of whether the United States would have won even if Duncan -- who had 10 points and six rebounds against Argentina -- had played the full 40 minutes. Argentina excelled even when Ginobli was out of the lineup for much of the second quarter. The Argentines shot 54 percent from the field, including 11 of 22 three-pointers, numbers that helped them overcome 21 turnovers.

"They did a good job of working the ball in, kicking it out," U.S. forward Amare Stoudemire said, "and then hitting the open shot."

Ah, that old American bugaboo. Just a day after guard Stephon Marbury scored 31 points and made it look like Team USA understood how to take a jump shot, the Americans reverted to their old struggles. They made just 3 of 11 three-point tries, and at crucial times couldn't make shots. Through seven games, they are hitting just 30 percent of their three-pointers.

So Saturday, they will play for bronze. The only other U.S. team to do so was the 1988 version, which lost to the powerful Soviet Union in the semifinals, and became the last team of American college players to compete in the Olympics. The Dream Team concept debuted in 1992, and prior to this Olympics, hadn't lost a game.

"It's different now," Ginobli said. "In 1992, it was Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, three of the best players ever. Here, they are great players, too, but they are young -- 19, 20 years old. They never played internationally. It's a whole different thing. It's not a matter of attitude. The rest of the world is getting better, and the States is not bringing the best team."

Thus, the title of best team in the world will go to someone else.

The ball and a chance for a gold medal elude Allen Iverson. "We just couldn't get it done. They were a better team than us." The 1988 U.S. team, the last one composed of college players, is the only other to play for the bronze medal. Tim Duncan fouls out with five minutes left and the U.S. team trailing by 11. "We're not the same team without Tim Duncan," Coach Larry Brown said.Allen Iverson falls as he shoots. The U.S. team made only 3 of 11 three-point attempts.