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PAN AMERICAN GAMES : U.S. Fails Again; Bring On NBA : Basketball: American college players unable to handle Puerto Rico in 73-68 loss.

From Associated Press

It will be up to the NBA to bring gold to the U.S. basketball.

For the fifth time in as many major international competitions, a U.S. men’s team will return without a gold medal. Puerto Rico saw to that Thursday night with a 73-68 victory over the United States in the semifinals of the Pan American Games.

This current U.S. team--the last made up of collegiate players with the NBA set to join USA Basketball for next summer’s Olympics in Barcelona--had to face an experienced Puerto Rican team without its leading scorer and playmaker, Jim Jackson. The Ohio State star could only sit on the bench, his left foot in a cast with a stress fracture diagnosed Wednesday.

Puerto Rico had beaten a U.S. team two of the last three times the countries met. U.S. Coach Gene Keady had promised this would be a close game, unlike the last two U.S. victories in this tournament by a combined 104 points against the Bahamas and Uruguay.

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When the game ended, Puerto Rican players and fans converged on the court as the U.S. non-gold run stretched again.

Now the United States will play for the bronze medal on Saturday against the loser of the other semifinal between Cuba and Mexico.

“We’re not done yet. We want to win the bronze. That’s the American way,” Keady said. “We want to be the best.”

They may have been for the first 35 minutes of the game.

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The United States, which led 37-29 at halftime and 43-33 early in the second half, took its final lead of the game at 64-63 on a three-pointer by Walt Williams with 4:48 left. It would be four minutes before the United States would score again, and by then Puerto Rico had a 71-64 lead and the packed crowd at Sports City Coliseum was cheering every move that gave it the advantage.

The scoreless streak had four U.S. turnovers and just one missed shot. But Puerto Rico made each possession count by running down the clock and never missing at the foul line. Edgar Leon’s two free throws with 3:58 left and two more 1:01 later made Puerto Rico a perfect 16 for 16 from the foul line.

The United States finally broke the scoring drought on two free throws by Clarence Weatherspoon with 48 seconds left. Terry Dehere scored immediately when he stole the inbounds pass to make it 71-68.

Puerto Rico ran the clock down to 21 seconds before Dehere was called for an intentional foul. James Carter made one of two and, on the ensuing possession, he was fouled again and did the same for the final margin.

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“In the second half their big guys took over and that really hurt us,” Keady said. “We had the opportunities, we didn’t use it. They’re more used to international play. I hoped that wouldn’t hurt us in the second half, but it did.”

Christian Laettner, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds for the United States, said the first 37 minutes of the game were officiated differently than the final three.

“The thing I noticed the last three minutes was that every call went their way,” he said. “We settled into pushing and shoving the whole game, and the last three minutes they started calling touch fouls.”

The United States finished with a 25-18 rebound advantage, but 10 of Puerto Rico’s were on the offensive end and five of those brought second-half baskets.

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“We played hard defense and did a good job on the boards,” Leon said. “We were getting the fouls and we made the free throws and that was the difference. We’re playing for the gold medal and, like I have been saying, we believe it will be our last chance for quite awhile with the NBA coming in.”

Of Jackson’s absence, Puerto Rico Coach Raymond Dalmau said: “Our sixth man didn’t play either.” Mario Morales missed the game with a sore knee. “Who knows what can happen? There’s no doubt Jim Jackson is a great player, but it could work both ways. Maybe he could have won the game for them, maybe not.”

Williams led the United States with 16 points, while Jerome Mincy led Puerto Rico with 22 points and Leon had 16.

The last gold medal won by the United States was in the 1986 World Championships. Since then, there was a silver in the Pan Ams, a bronze at the Olympics, a silver at the Goodwill Games and a bronze at the World Championships.

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Laettner, a member of the last three U.S. national teams, said: “I don’t think people understand the rest of the world is catching up to us.”


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