A hard-working U.S. team, thrown together a month ago in the absence of NBA players, squandered a 10-point lead in the final three minutes, losing 66-64 to Russia Saturday in the semifinals of the World Championship.
A 3-point field goal that would have won the game for the Americans was disallowed because it came just after the final buzzer.
The seasoned Russians, essentially the same team that lost to Dream Team II by 46 points in the championship game four years ago, was led by 30 points from Sergey Babkov.
The Russians will play Yugoslavia, the European champion and 1996 Olympic silver medalist, for the title Sunday. Yugoslavia beat Greece 78-73 in the other semifinal.
The Americans will play the Greeks Sunday for the bronze. If the Americans lose, they would be the first U.S. team to come home without a medal in the worlds since the 1978 team finished fifth.
"We basically shot ourselves in the foot, which is what a lot of people at home thought we were going to do," said Ashraf Amaya, who has played 95 NBA games but _ like his teammates _ now plays in the CBA or Europe.
"We had the opportunity to prove everybody wrong, and not doing it really burns me.
"I would say the Dream Team probably would have beat them by 50. The Dream Team is the Dream Team, but we're not the Dream Team. It's not fair to make the comparison."
The makeshift Americans _ led by center Gerard King with 10 points and Jimmy Oliver with 9 _ led 64-54 with 3:10 to play after Jimmy King scored on a slam.
But Babkov, a member of that '94 silver medal team, hit two 3-pointers _ the second with 1:23 left, tying the score 64-64 as the U.S. went cold late against the Russians' zone defense.
After each team missed a scoring chance _ before a sellout crowd of 18,000 rooting mostly for the Russians _ the Americans had the ball and called timeout with 34.4 seconds left.
Then, Michael Hawkins, looking to penetrate, was called for a controversial offensive foul with 10 seconds left.
After a timeout, Russia in-bounded the ball under its own basket to Sergey Panov, a 6-foot-8 forward who, instead of passing to Babkov or 3-point specialist Vassily Karassev, dribbled the full length of the court through the U.S. defense and scored on a layup with four seconds remaining.
Wendell Alexis hit a desperation 3-point shot from 30 feet that would have won the game, but the ball was clearly released too late.
"We had it under control, but then we played like a real young team and they took the game from us," said David Wood, a veteran of many NBA and European teams.
"They definitely surprised us at the end. The guy (Panov) made a great play. He just took over the game and made a championship move."
Hawkins thought the foul against him was a poor call, and so did U.S. coach Rudy Tomjanovich.
"We said it was going to be crazy here," Tomjanovich said. "I'm sure there's a bad taste in everybody's mouth about how it was dominated by one guy (the referee) with the whistle at the end.
"But we should have had enough of a cushion that they couldn't have taken it away."
The Americans are 6-2 (they also lost by two points to Lithuania in their opening game), haven't scored 100 points, and have posted wins by an average of 12 points. In Toronto four years ago, Dream Team II averaged 40-point margins in their wins and scored more than 100 points seven times.
"The Dream Team in Canada had very strong players," said Babkov, who plays professionally in Malaga, Spain, with Wood. "This team was quite a bit weaker. They were OK on offense but weak on defense. But a win is a win, especially over an American team."
The loss means the U.S. will not qualify automatically for the 2000 Olympics. The world champion gets an automatic berth, as does the host city, Australia.