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PAN AMERICAN GAMES : It’s Same Young Story: U.S. Loses : Basketball: American college players unable to handle Puerto Rico in 73-68 loss. U.S. has not won a major international tournament since 1986.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Haven’t we seen this one before? The U.S. men’s basketball team enters an international tournament as the heavy favorite and, in practically everyone else’s eyes, the heavy. Then it loses to a team that deceptively looks as if it’s closer to a church league than the NBA, and a good time is had by all except for the U.S. college kids, who have to explain it to the parents, girlfriends and media back home.

Well, there is nothing really to explain about the United States’ 73-68 loss Thursday night in the Pan American Games semifinals before a standing-room-only crowd in the 12,000-seat Sports City Arena to a more mature, more experienced and, yes, more capable team from Puerto Rico.

“No, this wasn’t an upset,” Puerto Rico Coach Raymond Dalmau said. “I felt we should beat this team.”

And why not?

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Since winning the 1986 World Championships, the United States has hardly been unbeatable in international basketball. It failed to win a gold medal at the 1987 Pan American Games, the 1988 Summer Olympics, the 1990 Goodwill Games and the 1990 World Championships.

It would have finished out of the medals entirely at last year’s World Championships if it had not come from eight points behind in the final minute to win the consolation game. The opponent in that game? Puerto Rico, which beat the United States earlier in the tournament.

This U.S. team did not have nearly the offensive potential of that one, which included Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, Syracuse forward Billy Owens and Georgia Tech guard Kenny Anderson. And this team was even less threatening without its leading scorer, Ohio State forward Jim Jackson, who learned Wednesday that he had a stress fracture in his left foot and watched the game in street clothes from the bench.

Meantime, Puerto Rico’s team that will play in Saturday’s championship game against Mexico, a 93-87 semifinal winner over Cuba, is virtually the same one it has had in international competition for the last three years. Almost the entire roster was raised and played college ball in the United States but has Puerto Rican heritage.

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To name a few, there’s center Jose Ortiz Rijos, formerly of Oregon State and a No. 1 draft choice of the Utah Jazz; center Ramon Rivas, formerly of Temple and a Boston Celtic for one season; forward Jerome Mincy, formerly of Alabama Birmingham, and guard James Carter, who played at St. Thomas Aquinas in Upstate New York and was in the Detroit Piston training camp last season. Five of the players are professionals in Spain, and the team’s average age is 26.

“I have two players from the NBA, and everyone has experience in international ball,” Dalmau said. “I felt if we couldn’t dominate U.S. college players inside, then maybe we don’t have very good players.”

Puerto Rico eventually did dominate inside, but it took nearly a half to wear down the leaner but savvy U.S. team. The United States led, 37-29, after the first 20 minutes and went ahead by 10 early in the second half.

But with a largely Cuban crowd, mixed with a small but raucous contingent of trumpet-playing, drum-beating, flag-waving Puerto Ricans on its side, Puerto Rico rallied early in the second half. Mincy scored 10 of Puerto Rico’s first 12 points after halftime, including six on three-pointers, and the United States had to spread its defense.

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That allowed Ortiz to go to work inside against Duke’s Christian Laettner, who soon found himself in foul trouble. During an 18-11 run that took Puerto Rico from five down to two up, Ortiz scored 11 points.

He finished with only 13, but he had all the help he needed from Mincy, who scored 22, and Edgar Leon, a former Santa Barbara City College forward who scored 16.

Guard Walt Williams of Maryland led the United States with 16 points, and Laettner had 14 points and 11 rebounds. But, as Dalmau pointed out, the United States didn’t have a “go-to guy” without Jackson. That devastated the team down the stretch, when a series of turnovers, missed shots and fouls cost it any chance of coming back.

U.S. Coach Gene Keady of Purdue said that the U.S. didn’t play as intelligently as it could have but did play hard. Short of concocting a miracle cure for Jackson, he said that he couldn’t think of anything else he could have done to change the outcome of the tournament. The U.S. team even went to Miami twice between games to practice in privacy and escape the spartan athletes’ village.

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“The bottom line is that we weren’t good enough down the stretch,” Keady said.

So the United States lost for only the fourth time in 71 games since the first Pan American Games in 1951 and, for only the second time, it will not be playing in the championship game. Instead, it was relegated to a third-place game Saturday against Cuba.

But the United States will have to wait only one more year to resume its gold medal winning ways because the NBA players are coming to the rescue in the 1992 Summer Olympics at Barcelona, Spain.

Laettner said that the NBA players “are going to kill everyone, but that’s OK with us.”

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That’s OK with Dalmau, too.

“It’s not fair to the United States to keep sending the amateurs against professional players,” he said. “They haven’t won a tournament in five years, and other teams are getting better all the time.

“I know all the rest of us will be playing for the silver medal in the Olympics. That’s why I told my players before this game that we might never have another chance to beat the United States. This was our last chance for a long time to win a gold medal, and we didn’t want to see it go by.”


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