Riding relentless full court defense,the USA men won all seven of its games at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup in impressive fashion, including a hard-fought 93-79 gold medal victory over Mali (5-2) on Sunday night in Heraklion, Greece.
Averaging 100.9 points a game, the USA's average winning margin in the seven wins was 28.7 points a game.
"Obviously, it’s a real honor and I think our players appreciate it too," said USA head mentor Bruce Weber about capturing the gold. "When the national anthem starts playing and you have a gold medal on, it’s special. I know it brought a little bit of tears to me. You’re just so proud to be part of it."
"Our guys have been great since day one, they bought in. Everybody said we played hard, but it was them that played hard, and man they played hard. When we shared the ball and played hard, and played good defense, we were unstoppable."
Leading Mali 42-40 after a back-and-forth first half, the USA opened the third period with a 12-0 run that became a 17-2 stretch, and the U.S. led 59-42 with 5:42 left in the third quarter. Mali did not get closer than seven points for the remainder of the game.
Reggie Perry (Mississippi State/Thomasville, Ga.), who contributed 10 points in the gold medal game, was named MVP of the tournament. Joining Perry on the five-member all-tournament team was U.S. teammate Tyrese Haliburton (Iowa State/Oshkosh, Wis.), as well as France’s Joel Ayayi and Mali’s Oumar Ballo and Siriman Kanoute.
"It (MVP) means a lot," said Perry, who averaged USA team-highs of 13.1 points and 7.9 rebounds a game in the seven wins. "I put in a lot of work, but I have to give credit to my teammates too. They helped me out throughout the entire process. Coach Weber and all the coaches helped me out throughout the entire tournament, so, I just want give everyone credit."
Five U.S. players scored in double-digits in the gold medal game, and nine of the USA's 11 healthy players scored.
Six-foot-seven and seventeen year old Cade Cunningham (Montverde Academy, Fla./Arlington, Texas) led the USA in the gold medal victory with 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists; Jalen Suggs (Minnehaha Academy/Minneapolis, Minn.) scored 15 points to go with five rebounds; Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (IMG Academy, Fla./Overland Park, Kan.) scored 13 points and seven boards; and Scottie Barnes (University School/West Palm Beach, Fla.) had 11 points and eight rebounds.
Additionally, Haliburton dished out eight assists as the USA had 28 assists on 37 made baskets; and Isaac Likekele (Oklahoma State/Arlington, Texas) collected 10 rebounds as the USA won the rebounding battle 59-43.
"We were real confident with what we were doing, we just had a slow start," said Robinson-Earl, who scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the first half before missing the entire second half after suffering a foot injury. "Once we sat back and were patient with what we were doing, we were able to finish more shots. We were taking a lot of good shots but just not finishing. But we were able to get the offensive rebounds and finish, and take advantage of our depth and our inside presence."
The first quarter saw Mali jump ahead 11-3. The USA cut into the deficit, but still trailed 22-20 at the end of the first period. While the USA struggled with its shooting from the field in the first quarter, 25.0 percent(7-28), Mali was 50.0 percent (9-18).
The USA trailed Mali by five points for much of the second quarter but worked its way back to tie the game at 33-33 with 4:34 on the clock. The red, white and blue took a three-point lead for the first time since the start of the game, 39-36 at 2:02, but in the final minutes before halftime, Suggs made a 3-pointer while Mali added four points to make the USA lead 42-40 at the midway point.
The USA came racing out in the second half, and helped by two 3-pointers from Suggs, led 54-40 before Mali scored its first points of the third period with 6:29 on the clock. The USA closed the quarter by outscoring Mali 19-15 to lead 73-55 with 10 minutes left in the game.
"One, Jeremiah (Robinson-Earl) gets hurt, so Scottie (Barnes) has to go in and Scottie has been great all tournament. If you look at the plus-minus, he’s plus 27. He does so many little things, he’s so active, and so smart," said Weber about the USA dominance in the third quarter. "We got stops right off the bat and I think a our depth took it’s toll. We were able to sub most of the first half and they went in at halftime and came out maybe a little flat.
"We got stops and got into transition, and when we get transition we’re pretty good. I think we started the second half with five or six stops in a row and built that lead up pretty quickly. Then we were able to make enough plays to keep it where it was 15 to 20 except for one time and then we made the plays down the stretch to get a win and a gold medal."
Holding an 82-54 lead with just over six minutes left in the game, Mali turned red hot and outscored the USA 13-2 to close within seven points, 84-77, at 4:11. However, Likekele scored to up the U.S. lead to nine, and the USA defense took charge and allowed Mali just one additional basket in the final 4:11 to earn the 93-79 win.
"We just came out motivated. We felt like we were prepared but we didn’t come out and play the way we supposed to," said Robinson-Earl. "When it got to be the third quarter, it was time to get going. We knew we were going to have a time where'd we make a big run. We think we’re the deepest team here, so, we felt like we were wearing on them in the first half. We just came out energized in the second half and ready to play."
The USA is now 98-14 all-time in FIBA U19 men’s action and has won seven gold medals, three silvers and one bronze, including three of the past four gold medals.
"Just wearing USA across my chest means the world to me," said Haliburton. "I come from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 70,000 people. People like me in small towns, we don’t get the opportunity to do this. I wasn’t the most recognized kid growing up, and just my family and things like that, it means the world to me to be a gold medalist."
Tournament MVP Perry echoed his teammates' sentiment about winning gold.
"It means a lot because there aren’t too many people walking around with a gold medal. We knew coming in that it was going to be tough, and we wanted it. We knew our team had had lost a couple of years ago and we wanted to come back and get revenge," said Perry.
Mali was the first team from FIBA Africa to play in a FIBA U19 World Cup gold medal game.
"In our first meeting when we all got together, all 31 that tried out, we talked about winning gold and put it out in front of them - this is about USA and being proud to be a part of it, winning the gold medal. We talked a lot about us, being united, not about you. It’s about us and they really bought into winning and doing what we asked. I’m just proud to be part of it, proud to have a gold medal, and for me, it’s a bucket list to be part of this," Weber said.
Assisting Weber on the bench were USA assistant coaches Mike Hopkins (Washington) and LeVelle Moton (North Carolina Central).