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Basketball: U.S. 85, Lithuania 76

September 21, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ What once seemed impossible nearly happened.

In what was by far the closest game a U.S. team has played using NBA players, the Americans led by only five points in the final minute before defeating Lithuania 85-76 Thursday.

In Barcelona, no one came within 32 points of them; in Atlanta, no one got closer than 22. On this day, they could have lost. It was that close.

Lithuania actually had a chance to get within three points with 1:09 left, but the moment must have been too much for 27-year-old Eurelijus Zukauskas to handle. The 7-foot-2 center went to the foul line and missed twice.

Vince Carter, who scored six of the U.S. team’s final eight points, then hit a high-arching layup over the outstretched arms of two defenders for an 83-76 lead, and Sarunas Jasikevicius missed a shot at the other end for Lithuania.

With that, the chances of a monumental upset were over.

Instead, Lithuania will have to settle for being the first team ever to hold a second-half lead against one of the so-called ``Dream Teams.″

That historical moment came just under 18 minutes remaining Thursday as Lithuania took a one-point lead. The U.S. team then got an earful from their coach and built a decent lead, but it wasn’t enough to forestall one last push from a Lithuania team that didn’t have either of its two NBA players _ Arvydas Sabonis and Zydrunas Ilgauskas _ and didn’t have two of its best players from the past two Olympics _ Arturas Karnishovas and Sarunas Marciulionis.

This Lithuania team didn’t even have the tie-dyed warmup suits that were so fashionable four and eight years ago. What they did have was plenty of heart and the one ingredient all the Americans’ opponents have brought to Sydney _ a lack of awe.

The also caught a U.S. team that _ unlike it did in its first two games _ never went for the kill.

Maybe it was the fatigue of being on the road for nearly a month. Maybe their minds were on the Patrick Ewing trade back in the States.

Whatever the case, they found themselves reeling when a layup by Rimunas Siskauskas with just under 18 minutes remaining completed a 17-2 run and give Lithuania a 50-49 lead.

Coach Rudy Tomjanovich leapt from his feet and signaled emphatically toward the scorer’s table for a timeout, then changed his mind and canceled it right before Kevin Garnett hit a jumper. The timeout then was taken, and whatever Tomjanovich said to his team in the next minute was exactly what they needed to hear.

A defensive trap near midcourt led to a steal and jumper by Ray Allen, Gary Payton hit two foul shots and a fast-break layup and Alonzo Mourning scored on a drive to make it 59-51. The lead reached 10 points with 10 minutes remaining as Lithuania was in the midst of missing four straight free throws.

But then the Americans couldn’t finish.

Previously, the closest one of the so-called ``Dream Teams″ had come to trailing in the second half was a one-point lead over Yugoslavia with 14 minutes left in the 1996 gold medal game in Atlanta.

The 1992 team never had anything even remotely resembling a close call, and never even called a timeout.

Now, another barrier has fallen. And somewhere in the other Olympic bracket, some medal contender _ whether it’s Yugoslavia, Canada or Russia _ must be newly emboldened.

Payton, part of a starting lineup that included Mourning, Carter, Garnett and Jason Kidd, hit a 3-pointer to start the game. The U.S. team scored nine of their first 11 points on 3-pointers and steadily built a 47-33 lead.

But Lithuania scored the final eight points of the first half to keep the game from being out of reach, then kept up the pace to start the second half as Sarunas Jasikevicius hit a 3-pointer and Darius Songaila made a layup to cut Lithuania’s deficit to 47-46.

Mourning scored from the corner before Songaila and Siskauskas made consecutive layups that put the Americans behind.

Payton led the U.S. team with 14 points, and Carter scored 12. The Americans shot just 36 percent from the field.

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