By Steve Keating
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Croatia beat Lithuania 90-81 in the final preliminary round game of the Olympic men’s basketball tournament on Monday, vaulting from fifth to the top of Group B and avoiding a nightmare quarter-final clash with the unbeaten United States.
Instead, Argentina have drawn the short straw and will face the daunting task of taking down a U.S. team riding a 22-game Olympic win streak in their quest for a third straight Olympic gold medal.
The other quarter-finals, which will all be played on Wednesday, feature a spicy matchup between Serbia and Croatia, a tip-off between old foes Spain and France and a contest between Australia and Lithuania.
While the U.S. (5-0) finished group play as the only unbeaten team, their performances have, thus far, not won rave reviews.
After a pair of blowouts over China and Venezuela to open the Olympic tournament, the U.S. received a wakeup call in the way of narrow three-point wins over France and Serbia, followed by a battling 10-point victory over Australia.
But for all their struggles, no one is ready to down grade the Americans from their lofty position as gold medal favorites.
“I still think they are the favorites for sure to win gold,” said Argentina’s veteran shooting guard Manu Ginobili. “But after what happened the last two or three games, there are some doubts.
“We know that but we still don’t want to play them, we prefer to avoid them because of their athleticism, their talent.
“But the tournament looks closer than I thought and it looks like it is not going to be easy for anybody. I was kind of surprised by a couple of their games, they (the U.S.) were one shot away from going to overtime.”
BAD TASTE TO FINISH
Earlier, Brazilians swallowed their sporting pride and cheered for Argentina but were left with a bad taste when their bitter rivals lost 92-73 to Spain to end their own hopes of advancing.
Under normal circumstances a loss by any Argentine team would send Brazilians singing and sambaing into the Rio streets, but on Monday the host nation was grudgingly in the Albicelestes’ corner, needing a victory over Spain to reach the last eight.
Brazil did what they needed to do, beating Nigeria 86-69, but once again their Argentine rivals had the last laugh.
At times it seemed Argentina, already guaranteed a top four spot in Group B, were not particularly interested in helping.
The Argentines teased Brazilians by racing 8-0 ahead, but then sat back and watched as Spain answered with a 22-3 run to take a lead they would never surrender.
“I don’t remember but maybe it happened before,” said Ginobili, when asked if he had ever heard Brazilians cheering for an Argentine team. “I want to make clear we wanted to win too, it’s not that we didn’t care.
“We heard many times in the village, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to be cheering for you today.’
“It was kind of awkward but I am disappointed we couldn’t help them out and at the same time (help) us trying to finish one or two.”
(Editing by Bill Rigby and Mark Lamport-Stokes)