LAS VEGAS, September 1, 2007 — After Argentina rallied back from a double-digit deficit and downed Brazil 91-80 in their semifinal match on Saturday, securing a spot in the 2008 Summer Olympics, a shirtless Luis Scola and his sky-blue-clad teammates danced around at center court as though they’d just won a second straight Olympic gold medal rather than just the right to play for one.

I’m not criticizing them for their celebration, but the same scene didn’t play out two hours later when the US men’s senior national team accomplished the same feat with a 135-91 win over Puerto Rico.

“We’re very, very honored to be one of the qualifying teams for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing,” US head coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward. “You could not have a more proud team than this US team.

“We’re ecstatic about qualifying for the Olympics. I know a lot of people think it’s always a done deal, but it’s not a done deal until you do it.”

The US did it, as they have every game in this tournament, using a strong spurt to pull away from its opponent, remaining unbeaten, 35-0, in FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying play.

Led by Carmelo Anthony, who scored 27 points on 8-of-9 shooting from the field, which included three straight makes from beyond the arc to open the third period, the US team doubled its 15-point halftime advantage to dash Puerto Rico’s hopes by the end of three.

“I just play,” Anthony said of his success on the international stage, “regardless of what kind of game it is I’m able to adjust to it. It’s not like I’m out there trying to score 20 or 30 points; it just happens. It sounds funny, but it’s almost like it comes natural to me. The game is fun. Sometimes I almost like the international game more than I like the NBA game.”

As a team, the US scored an astonishing 43 points in the 10-minute period.

“I’d give in an A-plus,” USA Senior National Team managing director Jerry Colangelo graded the performance as a whole, “because one feature of this team – those who have been following it – the explosion happens. The only question is when does it happen? Usually it happens in the second quarter, today it wasn’t.

“I understand the stats of the third quarter; we were 14-for-16 from the floor, 8-for-8 from three, 7-for-7 from the line. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Prior to that outburst, however, Carlos Arroyo and Co. kept within striking distance.

With Arroyo handing out four first-quarter dimes and Larry Ayuso canning three of four from beyond the arc, Puerto Rico trailed the US by only six points, 33-27, after the first stanza.

The fast pace, though, favored the Americans, who shot 91 percent from inside the arc and 50 percent from behind in the first quarter.

The team cooled slightly in the second, before pulling away for good in the third.

In fact, the lead was comfortable enough that during the break between the third and fourth periods, the team watched along with the rest of the arena as Team AcroDunk put on a high-flying jamfest that included the use of a fishing-pole and 10-foot ladder. The attempt even earned high fives from ‘Melo for one lucky entertainer.

The fourth quarter was much the same as the one prior, with Puerto Rico watching sharpshooter Michael Redd stroke two consecutive triples, set up an Amare Stoudemire dunk with a sweet behind-the-back pass, score on a layup and create the opportunity for Mike Miller, alone in the corner, on a drive-and-kick.

By the time Puerto Rico could get a timeout, the US lead ballooned to 41.

With this summer’s main mission accomplished, does the US have anything to play for on Sunday when it meets Argentina in, what amounts to, an exhibition?

“We’ll approach it the same (as every other game),” Coach K said. “I’m sure both teams are ecstatic to be qualified for the Olympics. We’d just like to finish off playing really well. In the big scheme of things, I guess it doesn’t mean much. But the fact that we’re playing, we’re representing our country, we’re going to go out and play really hard and attempt to play as well as we have.”

One reason for the team to continue its strong play is to continue building toward next summer, when every team – not just the US – will show up with their “A” squads.

The last thing either team wants is to go out struggling and let questions linger as it heads into next summer’s Games.

“I am extremely happy about this,” Argentina’s head coach Sergio Hernandez said after his team’s win. “We have played two tournaments of the same caliber and came out strong on both. Now we have just to be happy and look forward to our upcoming challenges. Hopefully we will go into the Olympic Games as strong as we entered and performed in this tournament.”

One team that will not come out of this tournament on a positive note is Brazil, which lost the services of Denver’s Nene.

“Nene had a muscular injury,” Alusio Ferreira, head coach of the Brazilian team said, “which disabled him to take part in the rest of the game. It has nothing to do with his knee. It seems to be a superficial injury, but we will have an official answer once the doctor sees him tonight. I believe he will not be playing tomorrow.

“We will actually have to survey our players to see who will have the condition to play. It is understandable that our players are tired, especially because of all the effort they put into trying to qualify straight to the Olympic Games. Regardless of this physical and emotional tiredness, I think that our players have such a strong dignity that they will continue to represent their country to the best of their abilities no matter what.”

As, I’m sure, will the players from the US, Argentina and Puerto Rico when the 2007 FIBA Americas Tournament concludes on Sunday.