SYDNEY, Australia - It was the night Dream Team III nearly awoke to a nightmare, the night the wealthiest Olympic team of them all was nearly taken down by five guys with crew cuts and scuffed sneakers, the night the Olympic men's basketball tournament came of age.
The United States went to the brink and back last night against Lithuania, winning 85-83, to advance to tomorrow's Olympic gold-medal game against France.
It was almost the greatest team-sports upset in Olympic history. It would have eclipsed America's "Miracle on Ice" hockey win over the Soviet Union at Lake Placid in 1980. It would have dwarfed the Soviets' famous basketball victory over the United States at Munich in 1972, when the referees let the Soviets play the last seconds over and over until the Americans were beaten.
What would have happened had the third edition of the NBA against the world ended with an American loss at the Olympics?
"Twelve guys would have had to change identity," said guard Jason Kidd. "Most of us have saved a lot of money, and we'd have to spend it on real estate in a new country. I'm not talking about dual citizenship. It would have been a new country."
Disorganized and disinterested for much of the game, Dream Team III was reduced to prayer in the final seconds, when Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius, a former University of Maryland player who had already scored 27 points, launched a go-for-broke, three-point attempt at the buzzer.
The ball fell short.
Some of the Americans whooped and hollered, while others were in a rage over what they perceived as rotten officiating and rambunctious cheering by a crowd that simply fell in love with the Lithuanians through 40 minutes of basketball.
U.S. assistant coach Larry Brown was restrained from chasing after the officials by Tubby Smith, another U.S. assistant. Alonzo Mourning taunted some fans.
About the only U.S. player who went over to shake hands with the Lithuanians was Kidd.
What a moment for the NBA.
But the stars were relieved.
"If we had lost, I'd have to deal with my mom," said Vince Carter, who had 18 points.
Ray Allen wondered aloud what it would be like to go home and deal with teammates and fans had the team lost.
"I don't know who would have wanted to play for the bronze," he said. "Who would have wanted to take a 14-15 hour flight home and talk to our fans and teams, and tell them we got a bronze?"
The Lithuanians were devastated, hanging their heads.
The players might look as if they belong in a YMCA, but with their weaves, sharp shooting and tireless defense, they forced the NBA stars to work hard in the closing minutes.
More importantly, Lithuania showed the world that the men's tournament, which has been dominated by NBA stars since 1992, is no longer an "exhibition sport."
"If somebody had told us earlier this year that we would have lost to the U.S. by two points, no one would have believed it," said Lithuania coach Jonas Kazlauskas.
But the Americans came away with a healthy respect for their opponents, the Olympic bronze medalists in 1992 and 1996.
Long ago, the world caught up to America's college basketball players. Now, the world may be inching closer to the NBA stars.
Kidd acknowledged, with a bite of humor, that "it would be great for everyone in international basketball if we were to lose. They would have taken a gold medal and split it among all the other countries."
They nearly got the chance. Lithuania erased a 10-point halftime deficit, and the game was tied at 80 when Ramunas Siskauskas took an open three. The ball was well on its way to missing the basket when Antonio McDyess clobbered him.
He missed the first two free throws, hit the third, and Lithuania led, 81-80, with 43.4 seconds left.
Carter then gave the U.S. team the lead on a 10-footer with 31.3 seconds left. The Americans forced a turnover moments later. Garnett was fouled and missed two free throws, but McDyess shoved a Lithuanian player, grabbed a rebound and put it in for an 84-81 lead with 24 seconds left.
The final sequence was set up when Jasikevicius scored on a drive with 10 seconds left and Kidd hit one of two free throws to give the United States its 85-83 advantage.
Jasikevicius' last shot fell short. And the Americans made their great escape.
"We survived a great game," Carter said.
And they managed to win when it seemed as if everyone was rooting against them.
What percentage of the world wants the U.S. team to claim the gold? "Whatever percentage is all American," Carter said.
Next up for the Americans is France, which routed Australia, 76-52. The U.S. team beat France, 106-94, in the preliminaries. The game featured one thrilling play, as Carter dunked over 7-foot center Frederic Weis.
"Yeah. So. It's two points," Weis said.
What would happen if Carter dunks over him again?
"I don't know," Weis said. "We'll see. I'm not going to kill someone because he does a dunk. Maybe in the regular season, but not in the Olympics."