U.S. hoops back on top, beats Spain for gold medal

Monday, August 25, 2008

BEIJING -- Arm-in-arm, they climbed onto the middle of the medals platform, the spot that for so long was U.S. private property.

Some players flashed their Olympic medals to the crowd. One pretended to take a bite, just to make sure it was real.

Yep, it was gold -- the color the Americans always used to win but hadn't since 2000.

Culminating a three-year mission to end years of embarrassment, the U.S. team survived a huge challenge from Spain, winning 118-107 in the gold-medal game Sunday.

Order was restored in international basketball.

"Much respect to Spain, but the U.S. is back on top again," LeBron James said at a news conference attended by the entire team.

But not by that much anymore.

After overwhelming everyone for seven games, the Americans led by only four points with less than 2 minutes to play. Then they proved they could handle a close game that it seemed would never come in Beijing.

Their prize: the first U.S. gold medal since the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

Argentina won the bronze with an 87-75 victory against Lithuania.

Dwyane Wade scored 27 points for the Americans, who found a much better Spanish team than the one they humiliated by 37 points earlier in the tournament. Kobe Bryant added 20 points.

In a game so devoid of defense that it felt more like an NBA All-Star game than one with a title at stake, the Americans had too much offense down the stretch. Bryant converted a clutch four-point play with 3:10 remaining, holding his finger to his lips to quiet the rowdy Spanish crowd behind the basket.

Wade added another 3-pointer that made it 111-104 with just over 2 minutes left, and only then could the U.S. relax a little.

They began to celebrate during a break after some technical fouls on Spain with 26 seconds left, then partied at midcourt when it was over with "Born in the USA" blaring over the arena's speakers.

"We played with great character in one of the great games in international basketball history, I think," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Nobody else had been close to the Americans in Beijing. This team's only Olympic competition had been history, in a Dream matchup with guys named Jordan, Magic, Bird and the rest of the U.S. team that dominated the Barcelona Games in 1992.

Forget comparisons to those guys. The Americans were lucky to be better than Spain on Sunday.

Rudy Fernandez scored 22 points and Pau Gasol had 21 for the Spanish, the reigning world champions who were hoping to win their first Olympic gold.

U.S. players appreciated the challenge, hugging the Spanish players afterward. Bryant had an especially long embrace for Gasol, patting his Los Angeles Lakers teammate on the back.

"They did what they were supposed to do," Gasol said. "We fought hard all the way."

Seeming to appreciate the moment, after congratulating Spain, the team joined in a circle, jumping up and down at center court and waving triumphantly to the crowd as Krzyzewski applauded on the sidelines.

"I knew that we had a tough road ahead of us. We knew that these guys weren't going to roll over and give up that easily," U.S. forward Chris Bosh said. "So we had to be men, and that's what it takes to win."

The Americans had won their first seven games by 30.3 points, including a 119-82 rout of Spain.

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