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U.S. Basketball Team Nears Olympic Berth

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ If Puerto Rico plays as poorly against the United States in the semifinals as it did in its last second-round game, the Americans are a virtual lock to qualify for the 2004 Olympics.

Elton Brand had a game-altering defensive play before getting into a lighthearted postgame disagreement with Tim Duncan as the U.S. team defeated the host country 91-65 Thursday night in the final game of the second round at the Tournament of the Americas.

The Americans improved to 8-0, moving on to a rematch with Puerto Rico in the semifinals Saturday. The other game matches Argentina and Canada, with the two winners earning Olympic berths.

The losers will get another chance to qualify for Athens on Sunday night in the third-place game.

On the key defensive play, Daniel Santiago's hook shot was bouncing softly around the rim when Brand reached up and knocked it off. It would have been goaltending in the NBA, but not under international rules.

The play kept the Puerto Rico team from pulling within two points midway through the second quarter, and they never got that close again.

``Lot of attempts, but that was my first one ever,'' Brand said. ``It's not instinctive, and you have to be instinctive to go up there and hit it when it can still go in.''

Duncan had 10 of the U.S. team's first 18 points, but the Americans couldn't shake Puerto Rico until the second quarter. A dunk by Jose ``Piculin'' Ortiz and a fast-break layup by Sharif Fajardo prompted U.S. coach Larry Brown to call a timeout with his team leading just 28-27, and the Americans came out of the break playing with a greater sense of urgency.

A baseline drive and dunk by Ray Allen was followed by a difficult off-balance jumper from the lane by Allen Iverson, making it 34-30, and Brand's non-goaltending play kept the score that way.

``We've been trying to get them the whole tournament. Even the centers, Jermaine (O'Neal) and Tim, they didn't have one. We were joking about getting me the first one,'' Brand said.

That comment was relayed to Duncan, who strongly disagreed.

``No, I got one,'' Duncan protested. ``It's so hard to remember, you see the ball bouncing up there and you know you can go get it but you just can't tell your body to go do it.''

Responded Brand: ``No. No. No. Tim Duncan did not have a goaltend. I don't remember it. I didn't see it. We'll have to check the tapes.''

Jason Kidd's first 3-pointer of the tournament (he had been 0-for-7) upped the lead to seven before full-court pressure by Kidd forced an 8-second backcourt violation. A three-point play by Brand gave the Americans their first 10-point lead, 40-30.

Brand then stripped the ball from Carlos Arroyo in the backcourt on the ensuing inbounds play, and Kidd picked up the loose ball and fed Brand for a dunk and a 12-point lead.

Puerto Rico got back within nine at halftime, but the U.S. team quickly broke the game open in the third quarter, getting a 3-pointer from the left corner by Iverson for a 60-40 lead with 5:39 left.

The United States led 64-48 entering the fourth quarter, and the crowd steadily filed out over the final 10 minutes as Puerto Rico never threatened.

Tracy McGrady made a surprise return to the U.S. starting lineup two days after he said his sprained back would prevent him from playing in the remainder of the tournament. He finished with six points in 17 minutes.

``It was the treatment,'' said McGrady, who went so far as to say Wednesday that it would take a miracle for him to return. ``It was a miracle.''

Earlier, the U.S. coaching staff was watching intently from the fourth row of the stands as Argentina defeated the Dominican Republic 102-72 in the night's first game.

Manu Ginobili shot 7-for-8 in the first half for 16 of his 18 points before Argentina pulled away steadily in the third quarter and cruised through the fourth.

Luis Scola also scored 18 points and Leandro Palladino had 12 for Argentina, which came up with 16 steals and shot 71 percent from 2-point range.

It turned out to be a must-win game for Argentina after Venezuela, which lost its first four games, defeated Canada 93-86 in overtime earlier Thursday. Because of a complicated tie-breaking procedure involving point differentials to break three-way ties, Venezuela would have advanced to the semifinals if Argentina had lost.

``We played better against the better teams in this tournament,'' guard Pepe Sanchez said.
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