By Larry Fine
LONDON (Reuters) - Holders United States and Spain are one step away from a rematch of the 2008 gold-medal game after recording quarter-final victories in the Olympic men's basketball on Wednesday.
The U.S., getting a lift from Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, eliminated a game and gritty Australia team 119-86 while Spain prevailed 66-59 in a tough and testy encounter with France.
The Americans now meet Argentina in Friday's semi-finals while Spain take on Russia.
Argentina ousted arch-rivals Brazil 82-77 and Russia eased past Lithuania 83-74.
The high-powered U.S. team spluttered against the fearless Australians before Bryant, who had been relatively quiet during these Games, came to life by putting on a fourth-quarter show.
He drilled four three-pointers in succession to chants of 'Kobe, Kobe' from the North Greenwich Arena crowd as the Americans raced away from their tiring opponents.
"Kobe's usually been the best player every night we play (in the NBA) so it's great to see him go off like that," point guard Chris Paul told reporters after Los Angeles Lakers leader Bryant collected 20 points.
"He could do that every night but our team is so deep he doesn't need to."
Spain broke open a fierce defensive battle in the final minute to win a bad-tempered contest that threatened to turn into a brawl.
Back-to-back fouls for unsportsmanlike behavior were handed out to France's Ronny Turiaf and Nicolas Batum for hard hits while players from both teams had to be restrained by officials.
"Nobody likes to lose in the quarter-final of the Olympics," said Spain's Marc Gasol who led the winners with 14 points.
"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."
Argentina overcame a sluggish start and a late Brazilian rally to return to the semi-finals.
It is the third successive appearance in the last four for the South Americans who won gold in 2004 and bronze in 2008.
The Argentines jumped up and down with joy before singing along with their fans in celebration.
"We hung in there in the end and got an awesome win," said the experienced Manu Ginobili. "It's very, very hard to make an Olympics semi-final and against Brazil for us it's maybe even more special."
Russia made the most of their strength under the basket to beat Lithuania as they kept up their challenge for a first basketball medal in 12 years.
Andrei Kirilenko played his usual brilliant all-round game for Russia while burly centre Timofey Mozgov operated with great effect.
Kirilenko led Russia with 19 points and had a game-high 13 rebounds. Mozgov added 17 points.
"It was a physical game, Lithuania are a physical team. They were strong. The whole game was tough," said the 7-foot-1 (2.16-metre) Mozgov before adding that Kirilenko's points haul was routine.
"He played very well," said Mozgov. "I can't remember a game when he played badly."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)