HAVANA -- They had all the advantages. An unlimited talent pool to choose from. A convoy of coaches to scout opponents. A private plane to shuttle back and forth to Miami for rest, relaxation and practice.
But what the United States men's basketball team lacked last night was the ability to play a broad-shoulder international style, to exchange shoves on the sly, to wipe the ball away from the cylinder of the rim, to remain composed while a flag-waving crowd swayed and chanted.
The once unthinkable is now the predictable. The U.S. men lost in an international tournament again. This time, they scored only four points in the final four minutes and were taken out by Puerto Rico, 73-68, in the semifinals of the Pan American Games.
Instead of playing for the gold tomorrow, the Americans will meet Cuba for the bronze. The gold-medal game will match Puerto Rico against Mexico, a 93-87 winner over Cuba.
"They had an edge in international experience, and they wore us down," U.S. coach Gene Keady said. "We didn't think the other teams would be like that. They recognized international play better than our guys. Shoving. Pushing. Being able to do it and not get caught. It's a compliment, not an excuse."
The United States came into the game with a ready-made excuse because its best player and leading scorer, James Jackson of Ohio State, was sidelined with a stress fracture in his left foot. While Jackson stood on the sidelines with a cast from his left foot up to his knee, the U.S. offense came apart in the closing minutes.
Walt Williams of Maryland led the United States with 16 points. Duke's Christian Laettner added 14.
Puerto Rico, older, more talented, and more experienced with six ex-college players and two former NBA players, bumped the Americans around inside and frustrated them outside. Jerome Mincy, who played at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, had 22 points and Edgar Leon added 13.
"During crunch time, we weren't making the correct plays on offense and we took some bad shots," Laettner said. "That comes from not playing with each other for one year."
While the Americans had more than two months to prepare for this tournament, Puerto Rico had less than two weeks. It didn't matter. U.S. college players can no longer dominate the international pros, losing in every major tournament going back to the 1986 World Championships. That's why the NBA stars are coming to Barcelona, Spain for the 1992 Summer Olympics.
"I can never get my players together for 10 practices in a row before competition," said Puerto Rico's coach, Raymond Dalmau.
But Dalmau did not consider the outcome an upset.
"We've been playing good tournament basketball for the last two years," he said. "If my guys weren't able to dominate U.S. college players inside, then they weren't as good as I thought."
After Williams' 3-point shot put the United States up, 64-63, with 4:46 left, the college kids collapsed. Puerto Rico went inside and bumped Laettner around like a pinball. Mincy's baseline jumper with 4:17 left put Puerto Rico ahead, 65-64. Williams took a wild shot and added a turnover, and the Americans were finished.
When the game ended, there wasn't a wild celebration on the court, just players from two teams shaking hands while the crowd roared for the winners.
"There is pressure on everyone to do well in the Pan Am Games, not just us, even the last fencers," Laettner said.