2nd-half surge puts U.S. in championship game


TORONTO -- Don't get Larry Johnson wrong.

He's looking forward to being on the medal stand tomorrow to receive the gold for winning the World Championship of Basketball. But in light of the lopsided games the United States has played and the large chunk of his summer spent trying to achieve that goal, he would have preferred a different script.

"We could have had one of our younger teams play. Then we could have come over for the gold-medal game," Johnson said. "We could have skipped right to the gold-medal game."

Sorry, Larry, it doesn't work that way. So Dream Team II had to work another 40 minutes toward its goal last night, shaking a slow first half for a 97-58 victory over Greece in a semifinal game at SkyDome.

The Dream Team's opponent in the final will be Russia, which edged Croatia in last night's other semifinal, 66-64.

The Russians, led by Sergei Bazarevich's 16 points, held Croatian star Toni Kukoc (Chicago Bulls) to five points. They never trailed and held a 31-22 halftime lead.

The finalists met on Friday night in a round-robin quarterfinal, with the United States pulling away to a 111-94 win.

Six U.S. players scored in double figures, led by Reggie Miller's 14 points and Mark Price's 13. But for the second night in a row, the real damage was done by Joe Dumars (12 points in 14 minutes) and Shaquille O'Neal (nine points and 16 rebounds in 18 minutes), who keyed the second-half surge the broke the game open.

"He's a natural-born leader and a winner," Miller said of Dumars. "He just always gives it his all at both ends of the court."

One night after leading by eight points at the half against Russia, the United States' halftime lead was 40-30. But a 15-5 run by the Dream Team to open the second half broke the game open.

Dumars led the run with nine points, all on three-pointers. And the Dream Team intensified its defensive pressure, holding Greece to eight points in the first 10 minutes of the half.

It was surprising that Greece was even in the game in the first half, after coach Makis Dendrino said he would rest his key players -- all but conceding the game, looking forward to today's bronze-medal game. Greece led the United States 17-14 with 11:40 left in the half after a layup by Panagiotis Giannakis.

The Dream Team was its own worst enemy, missing 12 of its first 14 shots.

When Greece took the lead, coach Don Nelson again called O'Neal off the bench, and the United States went on an 11-0 run to take a 25-17 lead. And it never looked back, although Greece came as close to five points with less than two minutes left in the half.

"I don't think it's the first time we've played poorly in stretches," said Johnson, who scored four points in 21 minutes. "But we always rally back."

Greece had two players in double figures, with reserves Efthimis Bakatsias and Costas Patavoukas leading the team with 12 and 10 points, respectively. None of the Greece's starters scored in double figures, with Dendrino saving them for tomorrow.

Again an opponent of Dream Team II went away from the game thinking that the gap between the NBA players and international players is rapidly shrinking.

"Don't get me wrong. They're unbeatable this tournament," said Greek center Panagiotis Fassoulas, who scored five points and was two of 10 from the field. "But the difference is getting smaller. I don't think they have the same talent as Dream Team I."

Fassoulas can jump at the end of a long line of basketball followers expressing that opinion, and the members of Dream Team II are tired of hearing it. But they won't think about that, with the goal of winning the gold in their grasp.

"Guys are really excited because it's down to one game -- winner take all," Miller said.

Kevin Johnson, the only Dream Team II player who failed to score last night, agreed.

"We're anxious to get out of here," Johnson said. "[Today's] game means a great deal to us."

"One of our tendencies this tournament has been to start slow," he added. "Knowing the magnitude of this game, I wouldn't be surprised to see the best basketball game the United States has played here. We will be focused."

The great game might happen. Regardless, sometime around 6 p.m. today the members of the U.S. team will be celebrating the championship of the World Championship of Basketball -- and looking forward to some much-needed time off.

"It's been fun," Larry Johnson said. "But it's been a long month. I've seen these guys enough. I'm ready to get out of here and go home."

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