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Bryant, Team USA flatten Argentina to reach FIBA semis

8/31/2007 - NBA

LAS VEGAS -- Kobe Bryant's strong start quickly took the
drama out of the most-anticipated game of the FIBA Americas
tournament.

Now comes the only one that matters.

Bryant scored 27 points -- 15 in the first quarter -- and the
United States cruised into the semifinals of the FIBA Americas
tournament as the No. 1 seed by beating Argentina 91-76 Thursday
night.

Carmelo Anthony added 18 points and LeBron James had 15 for the
Americans, who will face Puerto Rico in Saturday's second semifinal
game. A victory there gives them a berth in the 2008 Olympics.

"It was a little stagnant at the start and I came out and got
hot early and we rode that for a little bit and helped us get off
to a quick start," Bryant said. "We're close to accomplishing our
goal."

The Americans took control early and were never threatened in
the matchup with the defending Olympic gold medalists, who also
came in undefeated despite playing this qualifying tournament
without the core of their team.

"Tonight we had in the back of our minds was going to be one of
the biggest games of the tournament," Anthony said. "We knew
that, we knew we had to come out here and be aggressive."

An Olympic berth seems likely for a U.S. team (8-0) that had
overwhelmed its opponents before playing its toughest foe in the
finale of round-robin play.

The Americans averaged 117.6 points while beating their first
seven opponents by 42.7 per game, not too far from the 121.2 points
and 51.5 victory margin averaged by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson,
Larry Bird and the rest of the Dream Team in the Olympic qualifier
15 years ago.

While this game was closer, it wasn't much harder. Bryant hit
his first three shots to get the Americans off to a quick start,
and they led by as many as 25 points in a game that was never in
doubt after the opening minutes.

"The U.S. is difficult enough to play with the score, let alone
when you are 10, 15 points down," Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez
said. "It was a more physical game than we wanted to play. We
wanted to play a smart game, control the ball, but we were down too
fast."

The anticipated game brought the most energetic crowd of the
poorly attended tournament -- Las Vegas entertainment icon Wayne
Newton had a courtside seat -- with a group of singing, flag-waving
Argentineans sometimes drowned out by chants of "USA! USA!"

Argentina beat the U.S. in the 2002 world championships, then
did it again in the semifinals of the Athens Olympics. The
Americans avenged that loss with a victory in the bronze medal game
at last year's worlds.

But the Argentineans arrived in Las Vegas without some of the
top players from those teams. Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto,
starters for the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, opted to rest this
summer along with Chicago's Andres Nocioni and Charlotte's Walter Herrmann.

"Argentina is Argentina," Anthony said. "The guys they had
out there was still good players, we couldn't sleep on them. We
studied film just as if they were going to have their whole team.
We wish that their main players were here, but obviously they
couldn't be here. We had to take care of business regardless."

That left Luis Scola, who scored 20 points, and Carlos Delfino
as the mainstays of those teams who opted to play. A victory over
Brazil on Saturday would guarantee their teammates could return in
Beijing.

"We've been doing a great job in this tournament, but I don't
believe in stars," Scola said. "At the end of the game, it's what
you did. Today we were down 26, 28, but the reserves come in and we
finished down 15. Everybody has to do what it takes."

And while they had won their first seven games here, it hadn't
been easy for the Argentineans. They were forced to overtime twice,
including Wednesday night's victory over Brazil in which they
erased a 17-point deficit, and were playing for the eighth straight
day.

The Americans quickly jumped on them, as Bryant made three
3-pointers and was 6-of-8 from the field in the first quarter to
help open a 28-13 lead. The U.S. lead was 49-30 at halftime, with
the Americans shooting 59 percent from the field. Argentina missed
11 of 12 3-point attempts in the first 20 minutes.

"It was a little stagnant at the start and I came out and got
hot early and we rode that for a little bit and helped us get off
to a quick start," Bryant said.

The lead grew to 25 in the third quarter when Bryant raced
upcourt with a loose ball, shook off a bump near midcourt by
putting the ball between his legs, and made a layup while being
fouled with 4:09 left.