SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico Argentina couldn't do it again, not with Jermaine O'Neal taking a huge first step on the road to redemption.
With an improved United States team showing greater degrees of poise and talent down the stretch, the Americans avenged a groundbreaking defeat of a year ago by defeating Argentina 94-86 Tuesday in the second round of the Tournament of the Americas.
Fittingly for the U.S. team, the star was O'Neal one of only two U.S. players held over from last summer's team that finished a disappointing sixth at the World Championships.
O'Neal scored 22 points and made one of the biggest plays of the game at the defensive end, blocking a shot by Fabricio Oberto with 1:13 left a play that led to a fast-break dunk by Vince Carter off a pass from Allen Iverson for an 89-83 lead. It was the only missed shot for Oberto, who finished 8-for-9.
''Regardless of what happens, I'm always going to be marked in the record books as being on the first (U.S.) team to lose using NBA players,'' O'Neal said. ''That doesn't matter to me anymore. My goal now, and I think the only way I can see redemption, is to win the gold medal in the Olympics.''
The United States remained undefeated in this Olympic qualifying tournament and improved to 22-0 in qualifiers. The Americans are 64-3 when using professional players in international tournaments, all three of the losses coming last summer.
With a contingent of Argentinian fans singing ''Don't forget what happened last time,'' the teams played an intense four quarters.
The score was tied 74-74 with 6 1/2 minutes left before the U.S. team closed the game by scoring 20 of the final 32 points.
''The thrill comes from watching this group continue to mature,'' said U.S. assistant coach Gregg Popovich, who also was an assistant on last summer's U.S. team. ''I still think about that once or twice a week. We just won an NBA championship (in San Antonio), and I probably think about (losing to Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain) as much or more than I do about the NBA championship because I'm a sick coach and I think about those things.
''It's not about redemption or anything else. They won that thing, you can't take that away. That hurt will be there forever. This is a new deal,'' Popovich said.
Tim Duncan scored 19 points, playing most of the fourth quarter with four fouls, Iverson had 13, and Carter and Mike Bibby scored 11 apiece. O'Neal had a team-high 10 rebounds.
Oberto had 17 points, and Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni added 16 each for Argentina.
''We played great. We almost beat them, so we have to be very optimistic for the rest of the tournament,'' Ginobili said.
Following O'Neal's block and Carter's dunk, Andres Nocioni missed a 3-pointer, and Iverson went to the line with 1:07 left and made one of two. Another missed 3 by Nocioni from the same spot was followed by two made free throws by Tim Duncan to make it 92-83, and Argentina got no closer than six the rest of the way.
The second round continues Wednesday and Thursday before the semifinals are held Saturday. Three berths in the Athens Olympics are at stake.
''If we have to play them again, it'll be a great game,'' U.S. coach Larry Brown said. ''We were very fortunate to win, that's obvious.''
Duncan picked up his fourth foul with 8:54 left and went to the bench for the next two minutes, nearly picking up his fifth shortly after he returned. But no call was made after Duncan defended a shot by Luis Scola, and he raced downcourt and fed O'Neal for an alley-oop dunk and a 78-74 lead.
It was 81-77 when Iverson stole the ball and raced in uncontested. But he missed a layup, which Ginobili then reciprocated at the other end by missing a reverse.
A 3-pointer by Iverson late in the shot clock gave the Americans an 85-79 lead, and a missed 3 by Ginobili was followed by two foul shots from O'Neal with 3:11 left.
There were 12 lead changes in the first quarter, which ended with the Americans ahead 27-23. The U.S. team had a 7-0 run to open the second quarter, holding Argentina scoreless for the first 4 1/2 minutes to take a 34-23 lead.
Nocioni, playing with three fouls, hit a 3-pointer to begin a 7-2 run, and Lucas Victoriano and Ruben Wolkowyski hit 3s in an 8-0 run that pulled Argentina to 41-40 with 26 seconds left before halftime.
O'Neal had a three-point play to give the Americans a 44-40 halftime lead.
Ginobili drove into traffic and hit a layup with 5:34 left in the third quarter to give Argentina a 53-52 lead its first lead since 21-19 late in the first quarter.
Duncan had a tip-in and a dunk before assisting on a 3-pointer by Ray Allen to give the U.S. team a 62-58 lead, and Allen banked in a 14-footer at the buzzer following an Argentina turnover to give the Americans a 70-65 lead entering the fourth quarter.
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