USA Battles Back From Slow Start Against Serbia But Falls 94-89 In Penultimate World Cup Game
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When faced with one of the biggest moments of adversity in USA Basketball Men’s National Team history, the Americans didn’t go quietly.
Unfortunately for the U.S., which was down 25 points in the first quarter, there was just a little too much to overcome.
Behind a blistering start, fourth-ranked Serbia (5-2) held off a charge and beat the top-ranked Americans (5-2) 94-89 Thursday in a FIBA World Cup classification game at Dongguan, China. The loss means the U.S. — which has already qualified for next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo — will play Poland (4-3) on Saturday for seventh place in Beijing.
“It’s tough to come back the way we did, and for us to do that it shows a lot of heart and a lot of pride,” U.S. guard Donovan Mitchell said. “But at the end of the day we want the win. That’s where we are at. We’re not here to get moral victories — that’s not why we’re here. We’re here to win. And to lose two in a row stings, but we have to be ready to compete on Saturday.”
Harrison Barnes led the U.S. with 22 points, Kemba Walker had 18 points and eight assists, Khris Middleton added 16 points and Myles Turner 10.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, who plays for the Sacramento Kings, led all scorers with 28 points, including seven 3-pointers, while Vladimir Lucic had 15 points and Vasilije Micic — playing with a heavy heart after his mother died during the tournament — added 10 for Serbia, which still must go through an Olympic qualifying tournament next year. Serbia was 15-of-31 on 3-pointers, while the U.S. was 11-of-31.
The matchup between the U.S. and Serbia was a rematch of the 2016 Rio Olympics gold-medal game and one that was anticipated for a World Cup gold here. But the Serbs lost back-to-back games to be relegated to the classification bracket, while the U.S. fell to France 89-79 Wednesday, snapping a 58-game winning streak in international competition with NBA players.
“They’re good character guys,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said of his team’s recovery from the early deficit. “It was a tough turnaround and I guess it showed. If you miss that many shots, it’s a lot of defensive transition and at the same time Bogdan was on fire. So, we got him to hold but, I can’t tell you how much I have been impressed the whole time by their character, their stick-to-itiveness and persistence as they learn how to play together. Tonight was a great example of that.”
Serbia jumped out to leads of 11-2 and 26-5 before finishing the first quarter with a 32-7 lead, the largest of the game. Behind four 3-pointers from Bogdanovic, the Serbians made eight treys and shot 9-of-15 in the opening 10 minutes.
“They’re a great team,” Middleton said. “We knew that coming into the tournament. I think both teams would rather play each other in a different type of round or setting. They were a great team tonight. Their guy got hot early and kept it going all night long.”
Instead of folding, the U.S. dug in and focused on its trademark defense in the second quarter. While limiting Serbia to 5-of-15 shooting, the Americans — behind Barnes and Turner — erupted for 33 points to make it a game again. Serbia failed to make a 3-pointer in the second quarter.
The third quarter was essentially an even battle, with the U.S. pulling within 61-59 on Donovan Mitchell’s 3-pointer with 4:24 left. The U.S. trailed 71-68 after three.
Serbia, behind Bogdanovic, regained its shooting touch in the fourth quarter and led by as much as 10. But the U.S. made one more push as Barnes and Walker hit 3-pointers to pull within 91-84 with 59 seconds left. Bogdanovic and Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets) each made a pair of free throws to seal Serbia’s win.
“I think that’s the beauty of competition,” Barnes said of having to play so quickly after a tough loss to France. “We signed up, Aug. 6, whenever that was, we made that pact that we were going to do whatever we could to win basketball games. To go out there and try to win gold medals. On the flip side of that is that there’s a chance that we may not win. And, I think there are no regrets from our group in terms of what we’ve given, what we sacrificed, the commitment that everyone has made away from their families, teams, organizations, all of that.
“For us, we have to sit with that, get some rest and, on Saturday, we have that opportunity to go out there once again, play a game, represent our country. For some of us, potentially all of us, it could be the last time we wear a USA jersey, or the beginning of many, so I think we just have to savor that opportunity.”
Jayson Tatum sat out with a sprained left ankle, the fifth game in a row he has missed for the U.S., while Marcus Smart did not play because of an injured left hand.