U.S., Argentina clinch Olympic berths at FIBA Tournament

Updated: August 31, 2003, 2:13 PM ET

By Chris Bernucca SportsTicker Pro Basketball Editor

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Before Team USA and Argentina reprise their growing rivalry Sunday night, there is the small matter of the most important game of the FIBA Tournament of the Americas.

The last of the tournament's three Olympic berths will be on the line when Canada faces host Puerto Rico in the bronze medal game, which will trigger a long celebration for the winner and a long wait for the loser.

"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."

Canada (5-4) looked listless in an 88-72 loss to Argentina in Saturday's semifinals. It fell behind early and never recovered, trailing by as many as 32 points in the second half before coach Jay Triano rested his starters in anticipation of this game.

If the Canadians are going to clinch their second straight Olympic berth, they will need bigger games from Nash and former St. John's star Rowan Barrett, who have carried the team throughout the tournament.

Nash, the tourney leader in assists, had just four as he was unable to get the offense in gear. Barrett, who came in as the tournament's second-leading scorer at better than 19 points per game, managed just 10 on 4-of-10 shooting.

The teams met in the opening round, with Canada rolling to an 89-79 win as Nash thoroughly outplayed Utah Jazz guard Carlos Arroyo. In the 1999 Tournament of the Americas here, when just two Olympic berths were available, Nash helped Canada overcome a hostile crowd and defeat Puerto Rico in the semifinals.

"Essentially it's the same game, so hopefully we'll play well," Nash said. "Hopefully we'll make up for this performance (vs. Argentina) and at least play better."

In Saturday's 87-71 semifinal loss to Team USA, Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro used a similar strategy to that employed by Triano. With his team trailing by 22 points midway through the third quarter, he began emptying his bench to rest his key players.

Toro received an added bonus as his reserves, led by former Texas El-Paso forward Sharif Fajardo, cut the deficit to 81-71 with four minutes left before going scoreless the rest of the game.

Fajardo scored 14 points and Arroyo added 12 for Puerto Rico (5-4), which is gunning for its fourth berth in the last five Olympics. The tiny island commonwealth finished 10th in 1996.

Saturday's loss to the U.S. was the third in two weeks for Puerto Rico, which unsuccessfully resorted to physical play. In the first half, there was a shoving match between Kenyon Martin and Daniel Santiago and a near-fight between Tracy McGrady and Eddie Casiano right before halftime.

That led to a minor hailstorm of bottles and cups thrown from the stands at Roberto Clemente Coliseum. A cup of beer clipped Team USA coach Larry Brown in the head, while assistant Roy Williams was hit in the chest with a quarter.

"These teams feel like they can do this," McGrady said. "They more confident against us now. They feel they have a chance to beat us. I feel like the respect is there, but not like it used to be."

The reduced respect is the fallout from Team USA's historic 87-80 loss to Argentina in the 2002 World Championships. It marked the first time in 59 games that an American team of NBA players had lost in international competition.

Many think the Argentines have what it takes to do it again Sunday. With both teams having clinched Olympic berths, there appears to be more pressure on the U.S.(9-0) to complete the tournament with an unblemished mark.

"We have one more game," Martin said. "We're not satisfied with just having gotten to the final game; we want to get the gold. That's what we came here for and nothing less."

"This is very important to me," said forward Jermaine O'Neal, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday's win. "We've accomplished what we want to accomplish so far, but we want to finish this tournament 10-0."

Should the U.S. win, it would run its Olympic qualifying streak to 26 games and improve to 69-3 in international competition with NBA players.

The teams met in the second round and the Americans emerged with an emotional 94-86 victory. O'Neal led the way with 22 points, 10 rebounds and a critical blocked shot in the last two minutes. Afterward, he dubbed the Argentines a true international rival.

"It makes me feel really good that he thinks it's a rivalry," said Argentina guard Manu Ginobili of the San Antonio Spurs.

Against Canada, Ginobili scored 20 of his 26 points in the first half as his country sealed its third Olympic berth. Argentina (6-3) finished ninth in 1996 and qualified in 1980, although it was among the bloc of countries that boycotted over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

"They may be the most difficult team to defend because they have smalls setting screens for bigs, and their bigs are very mobile," O'neal said. "We didn't get opportunities to see a whole lot of that, but we're pretty familiar with them now, so (Sunday) hopefully we'll be able to counter what they're doing to us."

Team USA again will be without guard Allen Iverson, who suffered a sprained right thumb in Thursday's win over Puerto Rico and was ruled out for the tournament. Iverson was second on the team in scoring at 14.3 points per game.

"We're one game away from our goal," said forward Tim Duncan, who leads Team USA at 14.6 points per game. "We have Argentina (on Sunday) and they're the best team here besides us. They're going to come hard at us."

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