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Ten days ago, Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes was the nautical equivalent of road kill. It had been roughed up, run over and left for dead.

Now, the navy blue sailboat is the hottest of the three U.S. yachts competing to defend the America's Cup.After an aggressive move against Mighty Mary on the first leg, the next-toughest part of Thursday's race was when Conner had to swerve to avoid hitting a migrating whale with his 75-foot yacht.

After that, it was an easy sweep to the finish line as Stars & Stripes beat Mighty Mary by 2 minutes, 50 seconds to throw the defender finals into a three-way tie.

"We're just pleased to be here, to be afloat and to be tied," Conner said. "We can hardly believe it ourselves."

Stars & Stripes lost its last three races in the semifinals, including what was supposed to have been a sudden-death sailoff with Mighty Mary. Conner, a three-time America's Cup winner, was saved from elimination by a compromise agreement that made this a three-boat finals.

Stars & Stripes, which entered the round with no bonus points, pulled into a tie with Young America and Mighty Mary with two points apiece in the Citizen Cup standings. Young America, which has lost to both Mighty Mary and Stars & Stripes this round, entered with two bonus points. Mighty Mary came in with one.

Nearly three weeks ago, Stars & Stripes sustained serious keel and hull damage. Its subsequent mid-round keel change led to an acrimonious fight in the protest room, one reason the three syndicates agreed to let everyone into the finals.

Tactician Tom Whidden said the crew is coming around after a tough stretch, both on and off the water.

"I do think we are going a little bit better," Whidden said. "Do I think we're the fastest boat out there? No. But I think that we're in the ballpark, and if we sail well and sail hard, we can win some races."

On the challenger course, Team New Zealand's Black Magic 1 gained on all but one of the six legs to beat John Bertrand's oneAustralia by 1:57. It was the 34th straight win on the water for the Kiwis, who took a 2-0 lead in the best-of-9 Louis Vuitton Cup finals.

Thursday's races were a makeup of Wednesday's pairings, which were abandoned after the wind died and the time limits expired.

On Thursday, Stars & Stripes was dominating in conditions that seemed more suited for Mighty Mary. The breeze built from 5 knots at the start to 15 knots two-thirds of the way through the 18.55-mile race.

Stars & Stripes won the start by three seconds, but Mighty Mary was ahead the first time the boats crossed sailing upwind. When the boats met again toward the end of the leg, Stars & Stripes gambled that it could cross ahead even though Mighty Mary had the right of way on starboard tack. Stars & Stripes had gained from a wind shift, and crossed about a length ahead.

The margin at the first buoy was 25 seconds.

"Essentially, the race was over after getting around the top mark ahead," Conner said.

Stars & Stripes led by 1:41 at the end of three legs.

On the downwind fourth leg, Conner had to turn hard to steer clear of a whale.

"It looked like we were on a collision course," Conner said. "We were about 10 feet away. It was pretty scary."

Said Whidden: "I've got to believe the whale dove below our keel. I think you've all seen what our bulb looks like, but we were worried the whale was trying to mate with our bulb because our keel kind of looks like a whale in the front."

Mighty Mary was hampered by two jammed spinnaker halyards, which caused the giant headsail to drop into the water at each of the first two downwind marks.

The mostly women's crew made a valiant effort to fix the problem.

Sailing through fairly choppy seas and into a steady breeze on the fifth leg, Merritt Carey was sent up the mast for the second time to try to free the jammed lines. Later, Lisa Charles was sent up the mast to jury-rig a way to hoist the spinnaker on the next leg.

It wasn't until Mighty Mary was already on the downwind run to the finish that the crew hoisted a spinnaker, although not all the way up.

Susie Nairn spent most of the final leg on the bow, using a stick to keep the bottom edge of the sail from dragging in the water.

Mighty Mary lost 1:25 on the final leg.