United States perks up at Pan Am Games

Posted: Sunday, August 03, 2003

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic The United States used pinpoint shooting on the range and at the basket Saturday night to overcome a slow start at the Pan American Games.

Americans won gold and bronze in pistol, swept two fencing events, took the gold medal in women's gymnastics and topped it off with a thrilling comeback victory over an experienced Argentina team in men's basketball.

Greco-Roman wrestling star Rulon Gardner won two matches, as did teammate and fellow Olympian Brandon Paulson.

The U.S. gymnasts beat Canada and Brazil in the team competition, led by teenagers Nastia Liukin and Chellsie Memmel.

Liukin, 13, of Plano, Texas, scored 37.474 in four events (uneven bars, floor exercise, balance beam, vault), best in the field. American teammate Chellsie Memmel, 15, of West Allis, Wis., had the second highest score.

''We all had a good meet and we all did great as a team, trying to help each other,'' Liukin said. ''We are very excited to be the first (U.S.) gold medalist at the 2003 Pan American Games.''

That helped make up for decisive U.S. losses in women's basketball and handball and a scoreless tie in men's field hockey.

The most dramatic event of opening day was the U.S. men's basketball win, 80-79. Blake Stepp's 3-pointer and a jumper by Rickey Paulding in the final 1:20 capped the comeback from an eight-point deficit in the final quarter.

With the game tied at 74, Stepp, of Gonzaga, hit his long shot from the right wing to give the United States the lead. Paulding, of Missouri, missed a dunk over a defender with 51 seconds remaining, then made up for it with a 14-footer with 18 seconds on the clock for a five-point lead that stood up.

''We had to match their intensity in the second half,'' Paulding said. ''I just tried to keep staying aggressive.''

In women's fencing, the team saber and foil events were canceled in May, but the U.S. contingent said it was not alerted until Saturday. Sada Jacobson of Atlanta is the world's top-ranked fencer in saber, making the Americans a strong possibility for team gold.

She won the individual saber, beating Venezuela's Alejandra Benitez 15-4 after Benitez upset Sada's younger sister, Emily, 15-14 in the semifinals. Emily won a bronze.

The U.S. Olympic Committee is seeking a clarification on the dropping of the women's team saber and foil from the Pan American Sports Organization, which told delegates two days ago that every scheduled event would be held.

''It was not communicated to the U.S. delegation, or somehow it got lost,'' said Suzie Paxton, a spokeswoman for U.S. Fencing.

But Pan American Fencing Federation president Hanibal Illueco said every other nation knew the two events were not on the schedule.

''This seems to be a communications problem within the United States,'' Illueco said.

Dan Kellner of Warren, N.J., beat Jon Tiomkin of New York, his training partner, 15-13 in the men's foil final. That avenged a rout at the hands of Tiomkin in January.

''Jon's had my number lately a lot,'' Kellner said. ''The last time we fenced, he beat me 15-2.''

Gardner, whose upset of the supposedly unbeatable Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Olympics made him a national hero, won his first Pan Ams match 4-0 over Edwin Millet of Puerto Rico. Then he defeated Rafael Bareno of Venezuela 4-0.

In the midst of a comeback from a 2002 snowmobiling accident that resulted in the amputation of a toe, Gardner believes he is not in top form yet.

He looked fine Saturday.

''I want to win the Pan American Games, then the world championships next month and then hopefully represent the U.S. in Athens,'' he said.

A 10-0, six-inning victory over Guatemala gave the U.S. baseball team its 23rd straight victory. Dan Putnam had three hits, and Eric Patterson scored three runs.

The American women's basketball squad got some familiar treatment from the Cubans, falling 84-62. The United States, which lost three straight in Cuba last month, was outscored 15-0 to start the second half after building a 14-point lead.

''We know each other so well,'' U.S. coach Debbie Ryan said. ''They came out with a lot more energy and we didn't have energy. They pressured and we didn't handle the pressure.''

The first medals of the games were awarded in women's air rifle, with Cuba's Eglis Cruz taking the gold over Melissa Mulloy of Middleton, Mass.

''I came with expectations, but I never thought I'd experience happiness like this,'' Cruz said. ''It's always important to win a gold. But this time I hope it has even more importance because it can pave the way for many more Cuban victories.''

In men's 10-meter pistol, the United States took gold and bronze. Jason Turner of Rochester, N.Y., finished first, with John Bickar of Canton, Ohio, in third.

Mulloy and Turner earned 2004 Olympic berths for the United States.

Another U.S. team getting nowhere was in women's handball, where Brazil won 36-13. But the men beat Puerto Rico 31-24 as Gary ''Hang Time'' Hines of Atlanta scored 12 goals. The men's water polo team routed the host Dominicans 24-0.

The men's field hockey squad tied Chile 0-0 in the first team event of the games.

U.S. gymnast Sho Nakamori of Albany, Calif., broke his left leg in warmups for the men's team competition and will be flown home Sunday. The men's team finished third behind Cuba and Brazil.

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