By Larry Fine
LONDON (Reuters) - Spain broke open a fierce defensive battle in the final minute to beat France 66-59 and reach the semi-finals of the Olympic men's basketball tournament in a bad-tempered contest that threatened to turn into a brawl.
Back-to-back fouls for unsportsmanlike behavior were assessed against France's Ronny Turiaf and Nicolas Batum after hard hits at the end of the game, and players from both teams had to be restrained by officials from going after each other.
"Nobody likes to lose in the quarter-final of the Olympics," Spain's Marc Gasol said.
"Everybody wants to fight for those medals. Sometimes it gets a little out of hand because emotions get involved. Nobody got hurt, that's the most important thing."
The victory put Spain into the semi-finals against Russia, who beat Lithuania 83-74 in the opening quarter-final. The defeat eliminated France.
Spain and Russia will meet on Friday with the winners advancing to the gold medal game and the losers playing for bronze on Sunday.
Gasol led Spain with 14 points, while Tony Parker and Boris Diaw scored 15 points apiece to pace France.
Defending champions the United States play Australia, and South American rivals Brazil and Argentina meet in Wednesday's later quarter-finals.
The tightly contested quarter-final between last year's EuroBasket finalists came down to the last 91 seconds with European champions Spain holding a 58-57 lead as both teams struggled to score.
"For sure it was a different game now we're in the quarter-finals," said Spain's Sergio Rodriguez. "We played some great hard defense and so did France. We came off three games where we played really badly and really upped our game."
Diaw also said that the stakes heightened the intensity.
"It got up a level," Diaw said. "It's the quarter-finals of the Olympics. You expect that. We played well, we really gave our all. But we just couldn't make it."
The bad blood between the teams heated up when some observers believed Spain had not given a full effort in their final preliminary round loss against Brazil in order to fall into the bracket with France and avoid a potential semi-finals game against the powerhouse U.S. team.
Only 11 points combined were scored over the first eight and a half minutes of the last quarter, and then the action on court turned ugly.
Spain edged further ahead on two free throws by Rudy Fernandez after he was sent crashing on a foul by Batum.
Gasol flipped a left-handed shot in off the glass from under the basket to increase Spain's lead to 62-57.
After Diaw missed a three-point attempt, Turiaf knocked Fernandez down in a heap at midcourt and was called for a flagrant foul. One of two free throws made it 63-57.
With 23 seconds left Batum ran into Juan-Carlos Navarro on an inbounds pass to him, knocking him to the floor and bringing more than half a dozen players together in what looked about to erupt into a fight before officials stepped in to separate them.
After some more free throws, the 2008 Beijing silver medalists left the court still on track for another Olympic medal.
(Additional reporting by William James and Patrick Graham; Editing by Alison Williams)