- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

BARCELONA, Spain — Madrid awaits. Spain doesn’t.

The gold-medal matchup seemingly everyone wanted in the Basketball World Cup — maybe even some U.S. players — won’t be happening. The Spanish were upset in the quarterfinals, ending the predicted No. 1 vs. No. 2 game on Sunday on Spain’s home court.

“I think that’s one of the reasons why we came over here, was to play them,” U.S. guard Derrick Rose said. “Too bad we’re not playing them and hopefully we go out there in our next game and play hard and just know that we’re there for a reason.”

The Americans help up their end, moving within a victory of repeating as world champions for the first time with a 96-68 victory over Lithuania on Thursday night.

James Harden scored all of his 16 points in the lopsided third quarter of a near carbon copy of the Americans’ quarterfinal victory over Slovenia, when he awoke from a scoreless first half to help turn a close game into a blowout in a split second.

The Americans will face France or Serbia on Sunday, believing either could provide the test that was expected from Spain.

“Whoever we play, France or Serbia, is going to be a great game,” Harden said. “Obviously they’re playing there for a reason, we’re not going to take anyone lightly, which we haven’t thus far, and go there and just have fun playing basketball.”

They will arrive as even heavier favorites following Spain’s stunning loss to France on Wednesday. With their veteran experience and near misses against the U.S. in the last two Olympic gold-medal games, the Spanish were considered the team with the best chance — perhaps the only one — to beat the Americans.

Some U.S. players watched the game Wednesday, while others learned the result afterward. Talk of a U.S.-Spain final had lasted as long as the tournament, and though the Americans tried to ignore it, guard Stephen Curry acknowledged that was impossible.

“I don’t think we’re disappointed, or wished we played a certain team,” Curry said. “We’re happy to take care of our business, which was what to set out to do, which was make it to the finals, and whoever matches up against us on Sunday, we’ll be ready for.”

That team will have to show it can hang with the Americans for more than a half, which nobody in Barcelona did.

This one was an eight-point game at the break before the U.S. made 14 of 19 shots in the third quarter and outscored Lithuania 33-14.

Kyrie Irving had 18 points and Klay Thompson added 16 for the Americans in a rematch of the 2010 world basketball championship semifinals, also played on Sept. 11, the date of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001. Kevin Durant scored a U.S.-record 38 points in that one, an 89-74 victory.

That was a rare comfortable margin in this series where close games have been the norm. That includes the 2012 Olympics, where the Americans’ 99-94 win was their tightest in London.

This one started that way before Thompson made consecutive baskets for a 32-22 lead. Lithuania answered with four straight points and the margin stayed right around there the remainder of the first half, which ended with the Americans leading 43-35.

The physical play nearly turned ugly when DeMarcus Cousins reacted angrily after appearing to be elbowed in the neck by center Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors while battling for a rebound. He wound up as if he were going to punch Valanciunas in the back of the head, drawing a technical foul.

The Americans then threw the knockout blow, coming out of the locker room with an 18-2 run — emphasis on run, because they turned this semifinal game into a fast-break drill.

That got Harden untracked, who for the second straight game was scoreless in the first half before breaking out with a big third quarter. He had the first basket and a 3-pointer to cap a 10-0 start that made it 53-35 in less than 2 minutes.

Renaldas Seibutis made two free throws — Lithuania wouldn’t made a field goal for the first 4:43 of the period — before the U.S. speedsters raced to eight more points, with Anthony Davis slamming down a lob from Kyrie Irving to make it 61-37.

“Maybe we let them go,” Valanciunas said. “They were really good in the third quarter. They made their run, so that was good from their side.”

Harden had seven straight points near the end of the quarter to make it 70-43, and it was 76-49 entering the fourth.

Valanciunas and Mindaugas Kuzminskas each scored 15 points for Lithuania, which will play Saturday for a chance at its second straight world bronze.

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