Unbeaten Team USA plays Puerto Rico in semifinals

Updated: August 30, 2003, 11:00 PM ET

By Chris Bernucca SportsTicker Pro Basketball Editor

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Anyone crying for Argentina is pouring out tears of joy.

The Argentines secured a berth in the 2004 Olympics on Saturday night, roaring to an 88-72 victory over listless Canada in the first semifinal of the FIBA Tournament of the Americas.

Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs scored 20 of his 26 points in the decisive first half for Argentina (6-3), which advanced to Sunday's gold medal game against the winner of the second semifinal between the undefeated United States (8-0) and host Puerto Rico (5-3).

It is the third Olympic berth for the South American nation, which has made enormous strides in international play since its last Olympic appearance in 1996 in Atlanta. The Argentines also qualified in 1980 but were among the bloc of countries that boycotted over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

"Our goal was this," Ginobili said. "That's what we wanted."

Canada (5-4) picked a terrible time for its worst effort of the tournament and was relegated to Sunday's third-place game against the loser of the second semifinal. With the tourney's final Olympic berth on the line, it will face either the powerful Team USA of the hosts, who clearly have benefited from playing in front of raucous crowds at Roberto Clemente Coliseum.

"It'll be a blood and guts game," said Dallas Mavericks All-Star guard Steve Nash of Canada. "We're gonna have to be incredibly tough and mentally strong because it's not going to be a fun game to play."

Ginobili scored 20 points in the first half as Argentina ran away with it, opening a 51-34 lead. In the first meeting between the teams, Argentina barely held on down the stretch for a 94-90 victory.

Spurs draftee Luis Scola added 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting for Argentina, which shot 54 percent (34-of-62) from the field and did a terrific job on Nash and Rowan Barrett, Canada's top two players.

Nash, who had 24 points and 10 assists in the first meeting, managed 12 and four as Canada coach Jay Triano rested him for much of the second half. Barrett, the former St. John's star who came in as the tournament's second-leading scorer, totaled 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting.

This is the third meeting in two weeks between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

On August 17, the United States played an exhibition game against Puerto Rico at Madison Square Garden in New York, overcoming a slow start that has become one of its trademarks en route to a 101-74 victory.

On Thursday, the teams met again, both having already clinched semifinal berths. Team USA extended its perfect record in this tournament to 8-0 with a 91-65 victory at a sticky, raucous and packed Roberto Clemente Coliseum.

Afterward, Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro belittled Team USA's performance in this tournament, claiming it has not been the expected powerhouse because the NBA players who comprise the team do not play as hard as they can out of concern for their careers.

"My intuition tells me they are at least 40 to 50 points better than any of the teams here," Toro told the San Juan Star. "But to accomplish such victory margin, they must endure physical punishment and come out to play with reckless abandon. They won't do that because they know that when you go to battle hard, there may be casualties of war left behind.

"They are still not playing as hard as they can because they don't want to get injured due to their contract obligations. You can sense it in their faces - they are tired already of being here, they want to go back to their families with the Olympic bid assured and do so injury-free. Such way of thinking can make them vulnerable."

Team USA lost swingman Tracy McGrady for three games due to a sprained back, a recurring injury. This weekend, it likely will be without guard Allen Iverson, who suffered a sprained right thumb in Thursday's game.

Although the U.S. has been held to double digits in each of its last three games, it still is miles ahead of every other country in points per game (102.8) and victory margin (32.5). The Americans have rolled to eight straight wins, and only one - an emotional 94-86 victory over prospective gold medal game foe Argentina - truly has been close.

"It doesn't matter, really, because we can easily come back and lose No. 9, so this is the most important one of them all," swingman Vince Carter said. "We need to qualify and get to where we need to be."

Although all four teams will have had two shots to get the one win they need to qualify for the Olympics, Puerto Rico has a predicament. As the fourth seed, the hosts drew Team USA in the semifinals, which almost certainly means its chances will come down to Sunday's bronze medal game.

During last year's World Championships, the Argentines became the first country to beat an American team of NBA players and is looking forward to another crack at Team USA.

Saturday's losers will be laying it all on the line Sunday. The winner of the bronze medal game gets the coveted Olympic berth. The loser gets nothing but a four-year wait for its next chance to qualify.

"We've got to win," Brown said. "We've got to win one of these next two games and everybody knows that."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index