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July 16, 2004
It was one of those basketball games where you had to be up by at least 10 points in the final two minutes or you didn't have a chance at winning.
And the Puerto Rican team wasn't. Worse than that, they were playing perennial rival Dominican Republic in Santo Domingo. The Dominicans led, 40-34, at the half and were ahead, 70-67, with less than a minute remaining. Puerto Rican shooter Larry Ayuso drained a three to tie the score, but Dominican Amaury Filion answered right back with another three and 45 seconds left.
Puerto Rican guard Bobby Joe Hatton hit two free throws to put Puerto Rico to within one point, 73-72, with 29.8 seconds remaining. Hatton got a steal on the next possession, drew the foul and again sank two free throws to put Puerto Rico ahead, 74-73. With 9.1 seconds on the clock, Puerto Rico's Rick Apodaca fouled Dominican Jack Michael Martinez, who nailed both shots from the line to again give the Dominicans the lead, 75-74. Despite having 1.7 seconds on the clock, Puerto Rico could not score as time ran out.
For the Dominicans, it was their first Centrobasket gold since 1977. Last Sunday's game bore uncanny similarities to Puerto Rico's loss to the Dominican Republic in the 1995 Centrobasket, but that was a semifinal game. That year, the Dominicans lost in the final to Cuba.
The Centrobasket regional tournament, except for its status as an elimination tournament for the Worlds Qualifier, has no special significance beyond Caribbean and Central American bragging rights. This year, however, the event was to have served as a tune-up for the Olympics, in which Puerto Rico will play mid-August. The island quintet was the lone team from this area to earn a berth at Athens.
Even though Puerto Rico played Centrobasket minus its four top players (Jose "Piculin" Ortiz, Sharif Fajardo, Danny Santiago and Carlos Arroyo), it's still a bad omen to have lost a mere tune-up on the eve of the big game. The competition will be even tougher at the Olympics and a second-place finish at Centrobasket raises more questions than it answers, namely: If we can't win at Centrobasket, how are we ever going to think about a top four finish in the Olympics?
Coach Julio Toro already has the team practicing again and will be working out the details over the next month. The quintet will train with the U.S. team in Jacksonville, Fla., at the end of July and then head to Spain where they will practice for 11 days with the national selections of Spain, Brazil, Argentina and Serbia-Montenegro.
Tennis player Brandi gears up for Olympics
Speaking of Olympics, Puerto Rican tennis player Kristina Brandi is ready to give the Games her best shot in singles. The 27-year-old, who makes her home in Tampa, Fla., was in Puerto Rico recently to get her paperwork for Athens in order and was optimistic about her chances next month.
"There's tons of good, top 20 players in the draw, but that doesn't meet I'll necessarily be facing one in the first round," said Brandi. "There will be tennis players from all over the world and I don't know who I'll be facing. Plus I've already beaten several top 20 players in the world so anything is possible."
The 2003 Pan Am Games silver and bronze medallist has two big factors in her favor. First, she's used to playing in extreme heat exactly the kind of sun she'll face in Athens.
"Bring it on," said Brandi, who was ranked as high as 27th in 2000 before being derailed by a wrist injury. "I always train in the hot Florida sun and I'm ready. I don't know how many other girls will be able to play under those conditions, but I've been working hard on my conditioning and it won't be a problem for me."
Winner of six USTA circuit events last year as part of her triumphant return to the WTA Tour, Brandi is known in tennis circles for her extreme fitness. In addition to her technique work with her dad, coach Joe Brandi, she is also working with Pat Etcheberry, a personal trainer who also helps keep Justine Henin-Hardenne in shape.
Her second secret weapon will be her Olympics coach, Gigi Fernandez. A two-time Olympic gold medallist in women's doubles, no one knows how to win like Fernandez.
"It's such a relief knowing that I'm not going to have to do this alone, that she's going to be there," said Brandi. "She has the experience and she knows the players. I mean, who better to have with you than an Olympic gold medallist?"
Brandi, who improved her ranking from the 200s last year to 47th this year, heads to California this week to play in two USTA Circuit events as practice before the final dry run in Montreal.
"I'm reaping the benefits of all my hard work [bringing up my ranking] last year," said Brandi. "My goal this year is to try to end the year as high as I can. Last year, since I did so well, I have to maintain. It gives you a lot of confidence when you go from the 200s to the 80s and then from 80 to 40. Now I'm wanting to go from 40 to 20, but that's still a big jump. I figure in a worst-case scenario, which won't happen, my ranking will drop to 70. All I have to do now is concentrate on doing well in each event and the rest will come.
"I'm nervous and excited [about the Olympics] but I just want to get out there and play well," said Brandi.
The Olympics count for WTA points for the first time since pros were added to the Games in 1992.
"It makes the stakes a little higher and it will also make the tournament more interesting," said Brandi.
Arroyo to ink 4-year, $16 million deal with Jazz
Carlos Arroyo is in Utah this weekend to sign a reported four-year, $16 million contract with the Jazz. Arroyo would not discuss the terms because the deal has not yet been signed, but the 6-2 point guard couldn't hide his glee prior to a youth basketball camp he offered this week in San Juan. Arroyo sat out the Centrobasket tournament due to the contract negotiations, but he won't miss any more Puerto Rican team action. He's been practicing with the Olympic team and recently the P.R. Olympic Committee designated him as the island delegation's flag bearer. With the Jazz this past season, Arroyo averaged 12.6 ppg and 5 apg over 71 games.
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.