Marion paces with 22
ATHENS, Greece -- Bronze is better than nothing. That's one Olympic lesson the U.S. men's basketball team was able to understand.
The Americans took the third-place game seriously Saturday night, earning some revenge and salvaging some self-respect in a 104-96 victory over Lithuania.
Although they didn't get what they wanted in Athens, they didn't embarrass themselves in their finale, either.
"You want to win the whole thing, but you've got to cherish the fact that you were able to win something," Allen Iverson said.
"You come all the way over here to Greece and then go home with nothing? That's a lot worse."
Iverson stared at the Argentine flag as it was raised during the medal ceremony, nothing even remotely resembling a smile crossing his face.
The American team left quickly after getting its medals, while the players from Argentina, who defeated Italy 84-69 for the gold, stayed on the court for another 20 minutes. They cut down the nets, wrapped themselves in flags, sang songs and celebrated with their fans.
The Americans' key to victory was their shooting, as it was in their quarterfinal win over Spain. After missing all five of their 3-point attempts in the first half against Lithuania, they made eight in the second half -- four of them in the final quarter.
The 104 points was the most by any team in the men's tournament, topping the 102 the Americans scored against Spain two nights earlier in the quarterfinals. They were knocked out of gold-medal contention by Argentina in an 89-81 semifinal loss Friday.
"I think we ought to be real positive about them and what they did, the commitment they made and the sacrifice they made," U.S. coach Larry Brown said. "I said this before: This is the greatest time I ever had as a coach, and I don't know if I've ever been more proud of a group of people after tonight than this group. It has not been easy."
The start of the game was delayed 48 minutes after both teams arrived wearing white uniforms. It also included a second half that started with no coaches on the American bench. Brown emerged from the tunnel 50 seconds after play started, and his assistants beat him out by only 30 seconds.
"They changed the clock on us, and I've got two new hips," the 63-year-old Brown said. "We were in a slow jog trying to get here."
Strange stuff, but not quite as weird as the Americans dropping three games after they had lost only two in the previous 68 years. It's the first time since pro players were added for the 1992 Dream Team that the United States is going home without gold.
For the Lithuanian team, the defeat was the second in a row after it won its first six games. The loss denied them a fourth consecutive bronze medal.
"In general, fourth place is very good for a country like ours, but to lose the last two games hurts," Sarunas Jasikevicius said. "Could have been better, could have been worse, I guess."
The U.S. team was saying pretty much the same thing on a day the U.S. women won their third straight Olympic basketball title.
Wearing red after their replacement uniforms arrived before Lithuania's, the Americans opened an early 22-13 lead and created fast-break opportunities with their pressure defense. But Lithuania answered with three consecutive 3-pointers -- one of which became a four-point play -- to take a 23-22 lead.
Tim Duncan stared at the referees in disbelief after his first foul, just as he had after almost every call against him during the tournament. When he was whistled for another moments later on what appeared to be a good call, he stood along the lane with his back to the basket and the referee while a Lithuanian player took his free throws.
Duncan stayed on the bench for the entire second quarter, which ended with the Americans ahead 49-44 after they forced 13 turnovers and made eight steals.
"I am about 95 percent sure my FIBA career is over," Duncan said, using the acronym for the sport's international governing body. "I'll try not to share my experiences with anyone."
Lithuania started hitting 3-pointers and opened a 65-58 lead in the third quarter before the United States came back with an 8-0 run. Duncan went to the bench with his fourth foul with 2:02 remaining in the third quarter and the score 67-67, and the Americans led 83-82 when he returned with 6:08 left.
A pair of 3-pointers by Marion and Odom came during a 9-3 run that put the Americans up for good, and their defense held Lithuania to just seven points in the final three minutes.
Lithuania went 21-for-37 on 3-pointers but committed 20 turnovers and 27 fouls.
"We wanted gold, but I'm taking anything right now. That's the way it is," Marion said. "Everybody wants to play for the gold. To come back and be motivated for (the bronze) was a big challenge for all of us.
"We had to dig deep inside of us. We did tonight. At least we'll go home with something. We won't go home empty-handed."
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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