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Down to Olympic Final Four

July 31, 1996

ATLANTA (AP) _ Australia crashed the Olympic final four.

Tony Ronaldson’s four-point play with 34 seconds to go broke the game’s final tie and moved Australia into the semifinals of the men’s basketball tournament with a 73-71 upset of Croatia on Tuesday night.

Croatia, the 1992 silver medalist and a team that includes NBA standouts Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja, figured to contend for a medal again. But it was Australia that played well in the clutch.

The close game was a far cry from the early quarterfinals in which Lithuania cruised past Greece 99-66 and Yugoslavia crushed China 128-67. The United States beat Brazil 98-75 in the last quarterfinal and will play Australia in a Thursday semifinal.

``We’ll play the Dream Team as hard as we can, but now we’re guaranteed the top four and we’ll have a chance for a medal,″ Ronaldson said. ``That’s huge for Australia.″

Australia’s best finish was fourth in the 1988 games. This semifinal trip came off because of some solid defense down the stretch and Ronaldson’s big play right in front of the Croatian bench.

It was 66-66 when Australia (5-1) worked the shot clock down to five seconds and Ronaldson let fly. He was fouled by Radja and made the free throw to complete a four-point play.

``It was the biggest shot of my career without a doubt,″ said Ronaldson, who finished with 17 points. ``I made a four-point play in an all-star game in Australia but that’s nothing compared to this.″

Croatia (3-3) didn’t get much help from its NBA players, Radja of the Boston Celtics and Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls.

Kukoc had 13 points, nine rebounds and eight assists but was just 6-for-15 from the field, including 1-for-7 from 3-point range. Radja had no points, two rebounds and the big foul with 34 seconds to play.

Croatia struggled from the field over the closing seven minutes, losing a six-point lead by making only three field goals over that time, two in the final 11 seconds.

``It’s probably our greatest victory ever to get into the top four and to do it against class opposition like Croatia,″ said Australia guard Shane Heal, who made three free throws in the final 17 seconds. ``This does a lot for basketball in Australia.″

Andrew Gaze led Australia with 26 points.

In a way, the Lithuania-Yugoslavia semifinal will be a rematch of the gold-medal game in 1988. Three of the Lithuanians _ Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis and Rimas Kurtainitis _ played on the Soviet Union team that won the title in Seoul.

Zarko Paspalj and Vlade Divac were on the Yugoslavia team that finished with the silver that year _ along with current Croatians Kukoc, Radja and Stojan Vrankovic.

Lithuania and Yugoslavia met in 1995 European Championships, with Yugoslavia prevailing in a tough, intense game.

``It is good we know Lithuania well. It would be better if we had tough games up until now,″ said forward Zarko Paspalj, whose Yugoslavian team played in the weaker of the two preliminary pools. ``I think we are a better team than we were in the European Championships, and Lithuania is as well. It will be a very hard and emotional game.″

Lithuania assistant coach Donn Nelson, who holds the same position for the Phoenix Suns, agrees.

``We know Yugoslavia well and they know us well,″ he said. ``They are very talented and very deep, but we feel good about our chances against them. It will most likely be the best game played yet.″

Lithuania (4-2) opened its game against Greece with an 18-2 run and coasted from there. Kurtinaitis had two 3-pointers and two free throws in the opening run that lasted 5:43. Lithuania made seven of its eight shots from the field, while Greece (3-3) missed six of seven and all four free throws.

Lithuania shot 63 percent in the first half on the way to a 45-19 lead, while Greece shot 26 percent, including 0-for-10 from 3-point range.

Marciulionis, who plays for the Denver Nuggets, led Lithuania with 16 points and seven assists. Kurtinaitis and Arturas Karnishovas, who played at Seton Hall, each added 15. Sabonis, who plays for the Portland Trail Blazers, had 10 points and 11 assists for Lithuania, the 1992 bronze medalist.

Giorgos Sigalas had 18 points to lead Greece, which was making its first Olympic appearance in men’s basketball.

Yugoslavia (6-0) waited a little longer to take away any doubt about the outcome of its quarterfinal game.

China (2-4) was within 33-21 with 9:11 left in the first half, but Yugoslavia scored the next 28 points to take a 40-point lead with 2:05 to play. Reserve forward Zeljko Rebraca had 11 points in the burst, as Yugoslavia dominated the backboards and got its running game in gear on the way to a 63-29 halftime lead.

Yugoslavia, which has an average victory margin of 30.1 points, shot 64 percent from the field in the first half and had a 21-9 rebound advantage.

Rebraca finished with 22 points for Yugoslavia, which missed the Barcelona Games because of United Nations sanctions.

Wang Zhi-Zhi had 13 points to lead China, making its first quarterfinal appearance. China finished last in the 12-team field in Barcelona.

Anfernee Hardaway led the United States (6-0) with 14 points, while Shaquille O’Neal added 11 points and 11 rebounds as the Dream Team led by as many as 27 in the second half, the last time at 85-58 with 7:42 to play.

Oscar Schmidt led Brazil (1-5) with 26 points. The five-time Olympian had announced this would be his last games and he upped his point total to 1,040. Schmidt, 38, is the only player to better the 1,000-point mark in Olympic history.

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