Team USA (AP)
BEIJING - Don't doubt this U.S. men's basketball team — and sure don't challenge them, either.
Especially if it's going to make Kobe Bryant flash his NBA MVP form.
Bryant scored 25 points in his best game in Beijing, and the men's U.S. Olympic team advanced to the semifinals by beating Australia 116-85 on Wednesday night.
The United States will play defending champion Argentina or Greece on Friday night for a spot in Sunday's gold medal game.
Locked in what looked like another tough game in Australia, the Americans sent the Aussies' upset hopes down under with a 14-0 burst to open the second half, featuring nine points from Bryant.
LeBron James added 16 points for the Americans, who are guaranteed a chance to play for a medal. They need two more wins for their first gold medal in a major international competition since the 2000 Sydney Games.
As the US expected, with the gold medal getting closer, the games are getting tougher.
Australia stayed with the United States for the first 15 minutes of the game, duplicating the strong performance it had against the Americans in an 87-76 exhibition loss in Shanghai on Aug. 5 — a contest the Americans led by only seven points midway through the fourth quarter.
U.S. players picked from a list of excuses, including fatigue from too many games and looking past the game while thinking ahead to Beijing, but it was clear early on that the Australians gained confidence from that effort.
Showing no fear of the Americans, the Australians delivered hard fouls and attacked the basket instead of settling for jump shots. They trailed by just a point after a quarter and five more than halfway through the second — and would have been closer if not for missing four easy shots in the half.
A hard foul on Carmelo Anthony by Mark Worthington late in the second quarter fired up James, and maybe triggered Bryant's burst.
Bryant had two buckets in a late run that turned a five-point lead into a 12-point halftime advantage, then helped the Americans make it a rout to start the third.
He made two 3-pointers and had three more points in the first 3 1/2 minutes of the period as the U.S. lead grew to 69-43. Australia was shut out for nearly half the period, finally scoring on Patrick Mills' 3-pointer with 6:02 remaining.
Mills, who plays at Saint Mary's College in California, led Australia with 20 points. Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut, who sat out the exhibition game while resting a sore ankle, was in early foul trouble and finished with only four points.
Now the Americans move on to the round where their recent dreams have died. They lost in the semis four years ago in Athens and then in the 2006 world championship.
Everywhere the Americans go, they are reminded of those recent failures. A back page ad in the China Daily on Wednesday had pictures of Bryant and James below a caption reading, "Nothing is more motivating than bronze."
The loaded U.S. team hasn't needed Bryant to be a scorer since he joined the team last year, so he's been content to be its top defender. He averaged 12.6 points in the preliminary round, but Wednesday was 10-for-16 from the floor, hitting four 3-pointers.
Anthony had 15 points for the Americans, who blew by the 103 points they averaged in group play and shot 57 percent.