Not again. With 4 1/2 minutes left today in the men’s basketball gold medal game, the words over the loudspeaker were hard to believe.
“Time out, USA.”
Two days after dodging one of the most monumental upsets in basketball history, the U.S. team’s lead over France was four with 4:26 left when Antoine Rigadeau sank a three-point shot after 6-foot-11 Kevin Garnett didn’t guard him on the perimeter.
Panic time, again.
No one could have imagined before these Olympics that the Americans couldn’t celebrate the gold medal until 5.7 seconds remained, when Coach Rudy Tomjanovich turned to hug his coaching staff in relief and Allan Houston threw a towel in the air in an 85-75 U.S. victory in front of 14,833 at the SuperDome.
“A lot of people assumed we’d have the gold, and we have the gold, but it means more,” said Ray Allen, whose clutch three-point shooting helped the U.S. hold its lead. “It wasn’t like we just came over here and just won. We earned it. We played some tough teams. It wasn’t a cakewalk.”
The biggest favorites in the Olympics saw themselves as besieged here, but they won in the end.
“Well, I mean, I can definitely say that we worked for a medal,” Alonzo Mourning said. “Regardless of what the critics might say, I feel that the U.S. is simply the best team over here and we worked as hard as we could to bring home the gold and we accomplished that. That was our main goal when we came together.”
After the timeout at 76-72--a rare one in recent U.S. Olympic history--the U.S. missed two shots on the next possession before Garnett grabbed the rebound and scored, though he was fouled on the play and missed the free throw.
But that was a six-point lead, and it was never smaller again, with Garnett sinking a turnaround jumper and Vince Carter grabbing a key loose ball and winning a jump as the U.S. held off the French. Carter’s double-pump reverse dunk made it emphatic.
Carter and Allen led the U.S. with 13 points. Laurent Sciarra had 19 for France.
This was a French team that lost to Lithuania and Italy in this tournament and had sent one of its best players home with an injury only days before.
“This is just USA. Not Dream Team,” said France’s Cyril Julian--adding that he believes the original 1992 Dream Team with Michael Jordan would have beaten France by 30 points.
Then, in French, he said more: “They are very arrogant. We didn’t like the attitude of the Americans. They are very arrogant.”
But Frederic Weis, the 7-footer Carter dunked over during the preliminaries, didn’t complain.
“No, that’s not a problem for me. He plays good basketball and he doesn’t try to injure anybody,” Weis said. “Everybody boos them and he just wants to answer them.
“We think we can win, but we lose two or three balls and make two or three mistakes. Against a team like that, you can not make mistakes.”
Carter was emotional afterward, hugging his mother as she wiped tears from his checks.
When the game ended, he ran off the court toward the locker room with a flag.
“Told you we were going to do it,” he said.
As if anyone could have imagined it would be an issue.
With the Lithuanian team that almost became a the first to beat a U.S. team with NBA players in the Olympics sitting in a corner of the stands waiting to receive its bronze medals, the U.S. took a 17-point lead, only to watch it dwindle away and then reclaim it.
“This is one of the greatest feelings ever,” said Tomjanovich, who would have gone down as one of the most second-guessed coaches in history had the U.S. lost. “It’s different. Winning is great, I’ve won championships but this is different, it was a national deal.
“You’re not playing at your home, you’re on hostile land and the whole process of becoming a team was just wonderful.
“Everybody pulled for each other, and it wasn’t easy. You’ve got to respect your opponent and these teams over here battled right down to the end.”
No one thought any games would go down to the end.
Until this Olympics, no U.S. team with NBA players had ever played a game closer than 22 points.
This team played five in eight games.
“It was a little bit tougher than I thought,” Houston said. “But at the same time, nobody can tell us that we didn’t earn it.
“For every second, they played like they were playing for this gold medal. Nobody was nonchalant. Everybody had great attitudes. Everybody was picking up for each other. That’s what makes it even more worth it and more special.”
It was special for another reason. No one on this much-maligned team had won a college, pro or Olympic championship except Gary Payton, who played on the 1996 team.
“I feel wonderful,” Allen said. “I’ve been playing basketball my whole life and you really feel like you’ve accomplished something when you have something to show for it. We had a goal to do this as a team. I’ve never won a championship. To win a gold medal while the world’s watching is wonderful.”
The world watched with a lot more interest than anyone could have guessed.
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Gold: United States
Staff writers Alan Abrahamson and Helene Elliott contributed to this story.