The USA Basketball’s Men’s National Team knew it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk as it pursued a third straight FIBA World Cup championship.
Against host Australia, which was buoyed by a thunderous crowd, the Americans found out their path will indeed be treacherous.
With Patty Mills – who plays for U.S. head coachGregg Popovich with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs – scoring his team’s final 10 points, Australia knocked off the U.S. 98-94 Saturday before 52,079 spectators at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia. The U.S. beat Australia 102-86 two days earlier.
Mills finished with a game-high 30 points, including two clinching free throws with 11 seconds remaining. It was the first victory for Australia – ranked 11th by FIBA – over the U.S., which had won 78 straight in major international tournaments and exhibitions entering Saturday’s game.
“The Aussies gave us a great lesson as far as where we have to be and how we have to play in this kind of competition,” Popovich said. “So we’ll get used to that and hopefully learn.”
USA captain Kemba Walker came off the bench to score 22 points to lead the Americans, while Harrison Barnes had 20 points and six assists. Donovan Mitchell was the only other U.S. player to reach double figures with 12 points.
For Australia, Andrew Bogut had 16 points and nine rebounds, while Joe Ingles had 15 points and seven assists and Aron Baynes had 13 points. Mills, Bogut, Ingles and Baynes are among a half-dozen NBA players on the Boomers’ roster.
“Just watch tape and get more comfortable with our system,” Barnes said of what the U.S. needs to work on. “I think when you look at international play, every team that has been here for a long time but they kind of have their calling card on what they fall back into the system, sets. For us, we’re still getting to that point, we have some comfortability with it but it’s just continuing to be better at that.”
Following the game, the U.S. traveled to Sydney, where it will practice Sunday and play its final exhibition game before the World Cup. The U.S. will face Canada, ranked 23rd in the world by FIBA, on Monday. The Americans will have one more practice in Sydney before heading to China for the World Cup. The U.S., which currently has 13 active players, must make one more roster cut before the World Cup.
“The loss means that we need to play better,” Popovich said. “It’s a measure of who you are. Nobody wins forever. This is a group of guys that’s worked very hard, like I said, to get to know each other and get to know a system. And whatever comes, we can handle. Our job is to try to get better every day. We learned some things tonight. We’re actually a better team now than at the start of the game because of the knowledge from the game, so now we move on.”
The U.S. faces the Czech Republic to open the World Cup on Sept. 1 in Shanghai. Japan and Turkey are also in Group E. The U.S. needs to finish in the top seven to qualify for next year’s Olympic Games.
After clinging to a 49-48 lead at halftime, the Americans extended their advantage to 68-58 before the Aussies dug in. While acknowledging the Americans have pieces of their game to work on, Popovich credited the Aussies for playing an inspired game and earning a split of the two-game exhibition series.
“It’s really a testament to how long they stuck together to get this accomplished tonight,” Popovich said. “So, I’m going to give them credit at both ends of the court. They executed really well and they came up with the victory.”
Guard Marcus Smart, who had not played in either of the previous two exhibitions due to a calf injury, started for the U.S. The Boston Celtics star played nine minutes, 12 seconds and scored seven points, while grabbing one rebound and handing out three assists.