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U.S. basketball team gets scare, downs Turkey
By Anthony Cotton
Aug 9, 2004

Apart from the braided tassels on the nets and the Byzantine castle ruins across the street from the arena, Sunday night was just like any other old tension-filled basketball game.

A hot-shooting home team. A raucous, partisan crowd sensing a major upset. The breaks -- and officiating -- not going the visiting team's way.

It is the exact scenario coach Larry Brown has anticipated for his U.S. men's basketball team beginning next week at the Athens Olympics. Unlike five days ago when such an equation proved too difficult to solve against Italy, the Americans kept it together, fighting through to record a 79-67 win over Turkey.

``We got rattled there for a little bit, but we didn't let it bother us as much as it has in the past,'' New Jersey Nets forward Richard Jefferson said.

Which is exactly the point of a barnstorming tour that has seen the U.S. team go from Jacksonville, Fla., to Cologne, Germany, to Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro, to here. After the last of six exhibition games Tuesday night, also against Turkey, it's on to Greece, where there will be scant room for error for a group that has been together fewer than two weeks.

By such briskly measured standards, Sunday had to qualify as a major success. Ahead by as many as 17 points, the U.S. saw its lead cut to 68-62 with 3:56 to play. Although a second team of Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion and Carlos Boozer was responsible for much of that earlier lead, Brown was forced to put his starters -- Jefferson, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan, Lamar Odom and Stephon Marbury -- back into the game.

Even then, a 3-pointer 16 seconds later by Turkish guard Ibrahim Kutluay, his fifth of the game, made it 68-65. From that point, however, the Americans went on an 11-2 run to close things out, Jefferson and Iverson scoring four points each in the burst.

Brown said he was tempted to let his young substitutes -- Marion is the only member of the quintet who has played more than two NBA seasons -- remain in the game to try to work things out. In the end, though, the idea of possibly losing a second game so close to the Olympics proved too distasteful.``It wouldn't have been fair to them,'' Brown said. ``We had a chance to go up by 19, 20 points and all of a sudden we lost it a little bit. But until you get into that experience, you won't know how to deal with it. That's why we went on this tour.''

Brown said the atmosphere and crowd at Abdi Ipekci Arena was ``as good as any of us has played in front of.''

Much of the ardor, of course, was reserved for the Turkish team -- known locally as the ``12 Giant Men.'' The biggest of the bunch is Mehmet Okur, a 6-foot-11 center who was cheered like a man who had just won an NBA championship (he was a member of the Detroit Pistons) -- and then gotten really lucky -- signing a $50 million contract with the Utah Jazz.

Okur was the only thing that kept the game from being a total blowout in the first half. After intermission, the smallest of Turkey's giants, guards Kutluay and Serkan Erdogan, took over. The two would hit 10 of the hosts' 11 3-pointers, leading to the nerve-rattling finish.

``I feel good at this point,'' Iverson said. ``I might be worried if we had to start right now, but knowing we have at least a little ways to go, I know we're going to get better.''

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