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Kevin Durant, Team USA bounce Spain to reach Olympic semifinals

SAITAMA, Japan — Back and forth they went, the reigning Olympic champions from the U.S. on one side, the reigning Basketball World Cup champions from Spain on the other.

The difference: The Americans had Kevin Durant.

He’s never gone to the Olympics and not won gold – and clearly, doesn’t plan on that changing. Durant scored 29 points to keep his quest for a third Olympic title alive, and the Americans are headed to the medal round after ousting Spain, 95-81, on Tuesday (Monday night PT) in a quarterfinal matchup at the Tokyo Games.

Jayson Tatum scored 13 and Jrue Holiday added 12 for the U.S., which will play the winner of the Australia-Argentina game (Tuesday, 5 a.m. PT) in the semifinals on Thursday. Luka Doncic-led Slovenia (4-0) and France (3-0 going into its quarterfinal against Italy) are on the other side of the bracket.

The Americans also gave themselves the chance of extending a streak like none other in Olympic basketball history – in all 18 of their previous Olympic men’s basketball appearances, they’ve gone home with a medal.

Ricky Rubio was brilliant for Spain, scoring 38 points and Sergio Rodriguez added 16.

It wasn’t easy, and rarely is against Spain. This was the fifth time the teams had met in the Olympic quarterfinals or later since 2004; the U.S. is now 5-0 in those games, but the margin of victory in those is a close-by-American-Olympic-standards: 9.2 points.

And this one was no different. Spain actually led by 10 in the second quarter, before the U.S. went on what became a 36-10 run over the next nine minutes to take control for good.

Spain had won three consecutive Olympic medals, taking silvers after losing to the U.S. in the gold-medal games in 2008 and 2012, followed by a bronze in 2016 after falling to the U.S. in the semifinals. And this might be the last time that the Spanish roster has some of its longtime mainstays; Pau Gasol is 41, other top players like Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez are much closer to the end than the beginning, and this might have been Spain’s best chance to beat the U.S. at the Olympics.

Spain got down seven early, then simply did whatever it wanted against the U.S. for a 10-minute stretch of the first half. It was a 29-12 run by the time it was over, a burst that turned a 17-10 early deficit into a 39-29 lead with 3:25 left until halftime.

Spain shot 13 for 22 during that stretch, the U.S. just 5 for 22 – missing 12 of its last 13 shots in the run. But just when it looked like the Americans were in big trouble, it was their turn to rally.

A 14-4 U.S. run to close the half made it a 43-43 game at intermission, the burst capped by seven consecutive points over the final 70 seconds. And with that, it was a 20-minute game to decide who would play for medals and who would be going home earlier than planned.

The Americans didn’t trail again.

They opened the second half on a 15-4 run – making it a 22-4 run going back to late in the second quarter – and went on to lead by as many as 16 before taking a 69-63 edge into the fourth.

U.S. WOMEN DRAW AUSTRALIA FOR QUARTERFINALS

The next challenge for the U.S. women’s basketball team in its quest to win a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal is Australia as the Americans on Monday drew their rival in the quarterfinals (Tuesday, 9:40 p.m. PT).

The Opals beat the U.S. in an exhibition last month in Las Vegas and will be the latest test for a U.S. team that has been challenged at the Tokyo Games unlike any other time during its gold medal run.

“Australia will be a formidable opponent because we know each other so well and we look forward to the challenge of getting out of the quarterfinals,” U.S. coach Dawn Staley said. “We certainly have to execute on both sides of the ball and continue to get better to advance.”

The U.S. and Australia are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the world and usually meet later in the Olympics, but the Aussies barely qualified for the quarters. The Opals needed to beat Puerto Rico by 24 points on Monday night to advance after dropping their first two games of the tournament.

Despite their struggles, there won’t be a fear factor for the Australians after the victory over the U.S. in Las Vegas.

“Obviously not the team we wanted to play in the quarterfinals, but we will fight and hope to play our best game,” Australia coach Sandy Brondello said.

Australia has never beaten the U.S. in the Olympics, losing to the Americans in the gold medal game in 2000, ’04 and ’08. The Australians also lost in the semifinals of the 1996 and 2012 Olympics to the U.S. as well.

The Americans have won 52 consecutive Olympic contests dating to the bronze medal game of the 1992 Olympics. They went undefeated in group play – albeit not in the dominant fashion the team is used to.

“It’s encouraging to continue to win knowing what we’re faced against,” Staley said. “We are a lot different than what we’ve been in the Olympic Games leading up to this one, in that we have just half of the team that’s been around and then the other half really hasn’t. When your makeup is such, you have a tendency to lean heavily on the people that have done it a whole lot.”

Nigeria became the first team to come within single digits of the U.S. since 2004 and France held an early fourth-quarter lead. Still, the Americans found ways to win and haven’t lost a game in group play since women’s basketball was added to the Olympics in 1976.

“The countries here at the Olympic Games, they pour into their women’s teams, and now you’re seeing the effects of it,” Staley said. “And that is great women’s basketball play. We know we’re in a dogfight every time we step on the floor. It’s great for those who just put the television on and sit down and watch players that they haven’t seen before, countries that they haven’t seen before, and see them play a great game.”

The other quarterfinals matchups on Wednesday include: Group A winner Spain (3-0) will face France (1-2, third place in Group B), Group C winner China (3-0) plays Serbia (2-1, second place in Group A), and Group C second-place finisher Belgium (2-1) drew a matchup with Japan (2-1, second place in Group B).

The U.S.-Australia winner will play the China-Serbia winner in one semifinal, and the Belgium-Japan winner plays the Spain-France victor in the other. The quarterfinals are win-or-go-home; a victory means teams are assured of two more games – the semifinals followed by a gold- or bronze-medal contest – before leaving Tokyo. The gold medal game is on Sunday.

Japan advanced to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive Olympics and coach Tom Hovasse likes the team’s chances of medaling for the first time in the country’s history.

“Now it’s an open field for us,” he said. “Yeah, I’m happy. We have confidence. We’ve beaten pretty much everybody left in the field. If we can play our game and shoot like we did today we’re going to be a tough out for anybody.”

More to come on this story.

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