Physical play and a critical scoring drought in the final minutes spelled the end of a major streak for the USA Basketball Men’s World Cup Team.
The top-ranked USA lost to third-ranked France 89-79 Thursday in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals at Dongguan, China, snapping a 58-game winning streak in international competition using NBA players. It is the first loss in 25 World Cup games for the U.S. since falling to Greece 101-95 in the 2006 semifinals. The loss also means the U.S., which locked up a spot in next year’s Olympic Games in its previous game, will not medal at the World Cup for the first time since 2002.
“Any loss hurts, and this situation hurts more, but life goes on,” USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “This is very important. We would have loved to have won, just like any other team, we would have loved to win games in this tournament. But, we all have family and lives and life moving on.”
The U.S. (5-1), which was bidding to become the first nation to win three straight World Cups, won’t have any time to lick its wounds. The Americans will face a formidable Serbia (4-2), ranked fourth in the world, on Thursday in Dongguan (7 a.m. EDT) and will finish no better than fifth place. Meanwhile, France – which had been 0-9 against the U.S. in major international play – will face Argentina (6-0) in Friday’s semifinals in Beijing.
Donovan Mitchell was the go-to guy for the U.S., scoring 29 points, but none in the fourth quarter. Marcus Smart had 11 points and Kemba Walker 10. Evan Fournier, who plays for the Orlando Magic, had 22 points for France, which closed the game on a 22-5 run. Rudy Gobert – Mitchell’s teammate with the Utah Jazz and two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year – added 21 points and grabbed 16 rebounds for France, while Nando De Colo had 18 points.
“I’m looking at the times there were guys open that I missed,” Mitchell said. “There were possessions on defense where I threw the ball in the backcourt when we were down six. I can care less about the 29 (points). To me what sticks out is the things I did wrong. That’s what’s on everybody’s mind. Anybody could have had a good game. Whether is 29, nine or zero, we lost.”
Added Smart: “We learned a lot. For a lot of us it was our first time (in a FIBA tournament) so we came out and gave it everything. I’m proud of every last one of my teammates. We got another game tomorrow so it’s not over with. We have to come out and compete.”
The U.S. trailed 45-39 at halftime. Fournier and Gobert each had 13 points in the half, with Fournier proving to be the more difficult matchup. Mitchell had 15 points for the U.S. France outscored the U.S. 12-6 at the free-throw line and held a 21-12 advantage on the boards.
In the third quarter, France held a 10-point lead twice, but Mitchell single-handedly kept the U.S. in the game by scoring 14 points. Smart hit three free throws to put the Americans up 63-62 with 1:40 left in the third quarter, their first lead since 29-27 with 6:03 left in the second. The U.S. took a 66-63 lead into the fourth quarter.
Walker, the Americans’ leading scorer at 14.6 points per game but who battled foul trouble Thursday, made his first field goal with 8:11 left in the game, his stepback jumper giving the U.S. a 72-65 lead. It was just his third shot of the game.
The U.S. maintained its advantage at 74-67 on a Khris Middleton layup with 7:39 remaining. But France chipped away and finally tied the game 76-76 on Frank Ntilikina’s 3-pointer with 4:35 left. Fournier added a go-ahead driving layup, Gobert had an emphatic slam and Ntilikina had a long jumper that made it 82-76 with 2:05 left. The U.S. was unable to sustain any offense the rest of the game.
“We knew it was going to be a (tough) game,” said U.S. forward Jaylen Brown, who had nine points and four rebounds. “We just didn’t do what needed to be done. At the end of the day, we came up short. France was better than us tonight unfortunately.”
Gobert was a key factor in the game as he controlled the paint. He drew two early fouls on Myles Turner, negating much of the U.S. inside game. Still, the U.S. had opportunities it did not capitalize on.
“It really wasn’t so much their size as it was our execution,” Smart said. “We were really stagnant on the offensive end and with that being said, they hurt us on the defensive end. They moved us and we didn’t do it on the other end. It bit us on the butt.”
After starting 10-of-10 from the free-throw line, the Americans made just 4 of 11 tries, including several key misses that thwarted a rally.
“That hurt. That hurt bad man, just to miss those free throws,” Walker said. “I really wanted to make those for my teammates. But sometimes that’s just the way the ball goes. Very, very unfortunate. But now it’s nothing I can control.”