LONDON Spain provided a satisfying answer on Sunday to the question that has bugged fans since the start of the Olympic basketball tournament - could anyone keep up with the new U.S. Dream Team?
Thirty-eight games into a tournament that has rarely reached the level that LeBron James or Kobe Bryant face week in, week out in the NBA, a passionate Spanish performance produced a matchup to grace any stage.
"I've played a lot of basketball and its certainly one of the most competitive games I've played," said Pau Gasol, twice an NBA champion with the LA Lakers.
The Spanish fought tooth and nail to stick with a U.S. team full of scoring talent in front of a bi-partisan crowd packed into North Greenwich Arena before finally going down 107-100.
Only a handful of points separated the two sides right down to the final minutes, the first time coach Mike Krzyzewski's men had been forced to battle to the death in eight games in London.
"We really stayed with them this time. It was close. But to beat them over 40 minutes, you really have to play an almost perfect game," Gasol said.
"We made a couple of mistakes defensively - we tried a new defense that we'd tried in training and they made us pay for our mistakes. That's when they got away in the fourth quarter."
Spain had their chances. The Americans, as predicted, struggled against the height of Gasol, his brother Marc and Oklahoma City Thunder center Serge Ibaka. The two sides were just one point apart at the end of the third quarter.
But when it counted - several times in the last five minutes - the Gasols and Real Madrid guard Juan-Carlos Navarro failed to knock down the baskets that would have brought the U.S. lead to within striking range.
"I think we could have played better, just a little bit better in the fourth quarter and we could have got the gold," Spanish guard Jose Calderon told reporters.
Spain's Italian coach Sergio Scariolo said given slightly more time with his players to work on additional options in defense and attack to surprise the Americans could have made the difference. But he paid tribute to a "hugely talented" team.
"I wouldn't have said that the game was an absolute impossible mission for us. We didn't come here to lose by just four points, we came here to win," Scariolo said.
"I am really proud of how our team performed, fought, played tonight and all Spanish and basketball fans should be too. But you have to give great credit to our opponents - they are incredible players, full of talent, ability, skills."
(Addition reporting by Steve Keating, Editing by Greg Stutchbury and Ed Osmond)
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