USA Basketball qualifies for Paris Olympics, will play for fifth straight men's gold medal
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The U.S. is assured of going to the Paris Olympics. That's good. It also has a quarterfinal game at the World Cup awaiting Tuesday. That's also good.
Thing is, the only celebrating in Manila on Sunday night was done by the guys in the other locker room.
It will not be an undefeated summer for the Americans, not after Lithuania — with a mix of pizzazz from outside and power down low — led for all but a few very early moments against the only World Cup team composed entirely of NBA players.
The final score: Lithuania 110, U.S. 104. The winners went a staggering 9 for 9 from 3-point range to open the game and set a tone, bullied their way to a 43-27 rebounding edge and had seven players in double figures with two others just one point shy of joining that club.
“We're fortunate that the loss doesn't hurt us in terms of our goal, which is to win the gold medal,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “But it's a great game for us to experience because this is FIBA. There's some great teams that have continuity, that understand what they're doing, that execute and I thought Lithuania was brilliant tonight. They deserved to win.”
Vaidas Kariniauskas scored 15 points, Mindaugas Kuzminskas added 14 and Lithuania (5-0) wound up winning its second-round group, which really only matters for seeding purposes. Lithuania gets Serbia in Tuesday's quarterfinals, while the U.S. will face Italy.
The other quarterfinals are Wednesday: Germany vs. Latvia and Canada vs. Slovenia.
“In (the) locker room, I said to our guys to celebrate shortly and save all the energy and emotions also for the upcoming game,” Lithuania coach Kazys Maksvytis said. “It's very hard. We got one of the biggest wins in our career, but we don't have time to celebrate this. Serbia's waiting and they're not waiting for us with flowers and the red carpet.”
The loss — the first for the U.S. in 10 games this summer, counting five exhibitions on the way to the World Cup — came on a night when the Americans officially clinched a berth in the Paris Games.
And the loss won't change the mission going forward in the World Cup medal chase, either. Win Tuesday, win Friday and win next Sunday, and the Americans are gold medalists. Sounds simple. But Lithuania showed it won't be.
“Got to give them credit,” U.S. point guard Jalen Brunson said. “They came out ready to play. Lot of respect to them.”
But it was a still a shocker, especially for a U.S. team that was the overwhelming favorite to win the gold. Anthony Edwards led the U.S. with 35 points, his high of the summer, while Brunson and Mikal Bridges each added 14.
“We'll get to play again,” Edwards said. “That's all I'm thinking about is the next game.”
For Lithuania (5-0), it became another night to remember against USA Basketball. And the nation once famous for the tie-dyed T-shirts — some of them were worn by fans in the building Sunday night, who chanted and waved flags from the moment they entered until long after the final buzzer — sent a clear message to the Americans and anyone else still in this World Cup.
Lithuania has pushed the U.S. to the limit, and beyond, more than a few times. Lithuania lost to the Americans by nine in a preliminary game at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, then escaped with a two-point win in the semifinals — and remained unbeaten in the Dream Team Olympic era — when Sarunas Jasikevicius’ 3-point try as time expired fell short.
Those weren’t the only close calls or worse. Lithuania beat the U.S. at the 1998 world championships (what the World Cup was called then) and in the early rounds of the 2004 Athens Olympics. It also gave the Americans all they wanted in the 2012 London Olympics, falling 99-94 in a preliminary round matchup where the U.S. briefly trailed in the fourth quarter.
“It's a big win for our country, for players, for coaches, to play against the best in the world,” Kariniauskas said. “I'm happy for my country ... and we don't need to stop now.”
In a game that didn’t matter much as far as medal hopes, considering both teams came into Sunday with spots secured for the quarterfinals, there was a lot to unpack.
Lithuania rode that 9-for-9 start from 3-point range on the way to an early 21-point lead, and the U.S. became Paris-bound in the third quarter when Serbia’s win over the Dominican Republic clinched an Olympic berth for the Americans.
And right around the time Serbia closed out its win, the U.S. kicked into high gear.
It took the Americans less than half of the third quarter — 4 minutes and 16 seconds — to cut what was a 17-point halftime deficit down to four, and the comeback attempt was on. But Lithuania never lost the lead, no matter what the U.S. tried.
The Americans secured an automatic berth into the Paris Games as one of the two highest finishers from the Americas Region at the Basketball World Cup. Canada got the other berth later Sunday when it ousted defending World Cup champion Spain from this tournament.
“It doesn't ease the pain of the loss that we had tonight for us,” Kerr said. “But to be honest, I'm not worried about this Olympics. I'm worried about this. We want to win the World Cup. That's our focus.”
Lithuania: Kariniauskas had a viral moment when he wagged his tongue at U.S. guard Austin Reaves after a first-half score. Turns out, it was planned. Kariniauskas played this past season with Reaves’ brother Spencer — and Austin’s brother encouraged his teammate to talk trash. “That’s it. Nothing special,” Kariniauskas said. … Lithuania has won its last six World Cup games, the second-longest active streak behind Germany’s eight in a row.
USA: Edwards was 14 for 26 from the field. … The U.S. is averaging 101.8 points in the tournament and bidding to average at least 100 points per game for the sixth time in its 19 World Cup appearances. … The U.S. fell to 133-30 all-time in World Cup play.
Lithuania: Faces Serbia in a quarterfinal game Tuesday in Manila.
USA: Faces Italy in a quarterfinal game Tuesday in Manila.
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