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Team USA hammers Puerto Rico, qualfies for Olympics

Sep 2, 2007 - 3:35 AM LAS VEGAS (Ticker) -- So far, the United States has steamrolled through the FIBA Americas Championship on its home turf. Now, it's on to Beijing.

Carmelo Anthony continued to dominate, scoring 27 points and Michael Redd added 23 as the Team USA qualified for the 2008 Olympics with a 135-91 thrashing of Puerto Rico in a semifinal contest at the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday.

LeBron James added 19 for the Americans (7-0), who remained undefeated in this tournament with their second victory over the Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rico shocked the United States at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

"We are more disciplined and experienced than our 2004 team," United States center Amare Stoudemire said. "We are more familiar with the international rules and have a better understanding of the European style."

Team USA proved it, flexing its muscle in its lone crucial game of the tournament.

"We qualified for the Olympics," United States coach Mike Krzyzewski. "A lot of people think it's always a done deal, but it's not a done deal until you do it. Puerto Rico was so good in the first half. We knew they would be because they can control tempo with their terrific guards."

Team USA now will face defending Olympic champion Argentina, who held off Brazil in Saturday's other semifinal. The Americans posted a 91-76 victory over the Argentines on Thursday in the final second-round contest for both clubs.

"We want to finish it (the FIBA Championships) out on a good note," United States star Kobe Bryant said. "We know Argentina is going to be ready. We're very excited about the matchup and see what type of adjustments they make, because you know they will. They are very talented and extremely well-coached. We have to be ready."

But Sunday's gold-medal game will be nothing more than a showcase of two of the world's top squads. Argentina also qualified for the Olympics with its semifinal victory at this Olympic qualifier, which hands out automatic bids to the top two finishers.

"We're very, very honored to be one of the qualifying teams for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing," Krzyzewski said. "You could not have a more proud team than this U.S. team to represent their country.

To move on, the United States turned this tournament into a series of glorified scrimmages - winning each contest by at least 15 points. However, it was not without some worry on Saturday.

The Americans held just a six-point advantage after the opening period, which saw the Puerto Ricans play a deeply packed zone to force Team USA point guard Jason Kidd to be a shooter instead of a distributor.

It worked for the first 10 minutes until the United States' shooters - Redd and Mike Miller - busted the zone with a 3-point barrage. The duo combined to shoot 11-of-14 from the arc for the Americans, who shot 23-of-36 on 3-pointers.

"Michael Redd was on fire tonight," Stoudemire said. "We try to look for the hot hand."

"We have guys who can knock down 3-point shots and spread the floor," Bryant said. "When you have those kind of threats, the defense has to honor that at some point."

But it was not without flash for the United States, which outscored Puerto Rico, 43-28, in the third quarter to secure the victory. During that stretch, the Americans played to the partisan crowd with a slew of high-flying jams.

To no one's surprise, the aerial show was led by James, who continued to outclass international defenders with his sheer athleticism.

But it was Anthony - the team's leading scorer - who earned a chant from crowd as he sat on the bench with his team holding a 42-point advantage in the final minutes. The Denver Nuggets forward shot 8-of-9 from the field in just 21 minutes.

"In the second half, Carmelo went on one of those streaks," Krzyzewski said. "It reminded me of the game against Italy in the World Championships, where he just took off in that one quarter. He gave us such a lift."

"We know what's at stake not only to win this tournament, but also to win an Olympic gold medal," Anthony said. "I think we are on the right path. I'm not out there trying to score 20 or 30 points. It's just happening."

He even admitted that he enjoys competing on the international level.

"The game is fun," Anthony said. "Sometimes, I like the international game better than I like the NBA game."

Elias Ayuso scored 22 points and Carlos Arroyo added 21 for Puerto Rico (3-4), which will face Brazil in Sunday's third-place game. The Puerto Ricans already have advanced to next summer's Olympic qualifier with their performance here.

The third-, fourth- and fifth-place teams earned an automatic ticket to that tournament.

"We have a lot of young guys, and it is the first time this group has played together," Puerto Rico forward Rick Apodaca said. "I still expect us to qualify for the Olympics. We have another chance."

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