USA 91, Argentina 76

LAS VEGAS, Aug. 30 (AP) -- A new and improved U.S. team was too good for Argentina's B team.

Kobe Bryant scored 27 points — 15 in the first quarter — and the United States cruised into the semifinals of the FIBA Americas tournament as the No. 1 seed by beating Argentina 91-76 Thursday night.

The Americans took control early and were never threatened in the matchup with the defending Olympic gold medalists, who also came in undefeated despite playing this qualifying tournament without the core of their team.

Carmelo Anthony added 18 points and LeBron James had 15 for the Americans, who will face Puerto Rico in one of Saturday's semifinal games. A victory there gives them a berth in the 2008 Olympics.

That seems likely for a U.S. team (8-0) that had overwhelmed its opponents before playing their toughest foe in the finale of round-robin play.

The Americans averaged 117.6 points while beating their first seven opponents by 42.7 per game, not too far from the 121.2 points and 51.5 victory margin averaged by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the rest of the Dream Team in the Olympics 15 years ago.

"I think the biggest compliment I saw yesterday was that this team was compared to the '92 team," Jason Kidd said Wednesday. "And if you look back at all the other Dream Teams, that's never happened. And that's the biggest compliment that (we) can take because that was the best team ever assembled. So when you start seeing that, that means that we're doing something right."

While this game was closer, it wasn't much harder. Bryant hit his first three shots to get the Americans off to a quick start, and they led by as many as 25 points in a game that was never in doubt after the opening minutes.

The anticipated game brought the most energetic crowd of the poorly attended tournament — Las Vegas entertainment icon Wayne Newton had a courtside seat — with a group of singing, flag-waving Argentineans sometimes drowned out by chants of "USA!, USA!"

Argentina beat the U.S. in the 2002 world championships, then did it again in the semifinals of the Athens Olympics. The Americans avenged that loss with a victory in the bronze medal game at last year's worlds.

But the Argentinians arrived in Las Vegas without some of the top players from those teams. Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto, starters for the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, opted to rest this summer along with Chicago's Andres Nocioni and Charlotte's Walter Herrmann.

That left Luis Scola, who scored 20 points, and Carlos Delfino as the mainstays of those teams who opted to play. A victory over Brazil on Saturday would guarantee their teammates could return in Beijing.

And while they had won their first seven games here, it hadn't been easy for the Argentinians. They were forced to overtime twice, including Wednesday night's victory over Brazil in which they erased a 17-point deficit, and were playing for the eighth straight day.

The Americans quickly jumped on them, as Bryant made three 3-pointers and was 6-of-8 from the field in the first quarter to help open a 28-13 lead. The U.S. lead was 49-30 at halftime, with the Americans shooting 59 percent from the field. Argentina missed 11 of 12 three-point attempts in the first 20 minutes.

The lead grew to 25 in the third quarter when Bryant raced upcourt with a loose ball, shook off a bump near midcourt by putting the ball between his legs, and made a layup while being fouled with 4:09 left in the third.


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