Utilizing a disruptive and effective full court defensive press, depth, balanced scoring and a transition offense that is down right frightful, the USA improved to 8-0 and earned a spot in Sunday’s gold medal game after eliminating Lithuania (6-2) 100-60 at the O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic.
The U.S. will face Serbia in the gold medal contest (2:15 p.m. EDT). Serbia, 7-1, suffered its lone loss to the USA, a 71-62 defeat suffered on July 3. FIBA TV and ESPN3 are streaming all of the finals games live.
“I thought it (the USA’s focus and intensity) was really good,” said USA and University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan. “This was a game where our guys came out and really from start to finish played really, really good basketball and I was proud of them tonight.
“We gave ourselves an opportunity to play for the gold medal, that was the goal and now we’ll have a great challenge against a Serbia team that obviously we played in an incredibly hard-played game a couple of days ago.”
As has been the case in each of the team’s seven previous wins, the American offensive effort was a team one. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State University/Flower Mound, Texas) officially was high scorer for the game with 18 points that came on 6-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-4 from 3-point. Joining him in double figures were Justise Winslow (St. Johns H.S./Houston, Texas), 15 points and nine rebounds; Aaron Gordon (Archbishop Mitty H.S./San Jose, Calif.), 14 points, four rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and two steals; Nigel Williams-Goss (Findlay Prep/Happy Valley, Ore.), 11 points and a game-best five assists; and Montrezl Harrell (University of Louisville/ Tarboro, N.C.), 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
“These guys have bought into understanding that they’re all really good players and there’s going to be a level of sacrifice and unselfishness that’s going to have to go in and on any given night it could be anybody. Michael Frazier hasn’t particularly shot the ball well but you know the last two nights he’s made some 3-point shots that really helped our team. Oak (Jahlil Okafor) the other day against Canada was a force up front for us and made some incredible plays but today they double-teamed him. So it’s been different guys. I think we have to have an open mind offensively to take whatever the defense gives us and understand that on any given night it could be anyone scoring,” said Donovan.
Jarnell Stokes (University of Tennessee/Memphis, Tenn.) scored five points to help push the U.S. out to a strong start as the U.S. led 7-2. Lithuania made the first of the three 3-pointers it would score in the game to close the gap to 7-5, and the U.S., behind its havoc-wreaking press and five points from Winslow, ripped off 10-straight points in less than two minutes to take charge 17-5.
Carrying a 25-16 lead into the second quarter, the U.S. was up 31-22 when it finished off the second period with another impressive run, this time a 16-4 barrage that left the American squad in full control at halftime, 47-26. Michael Frazier (University of Florida/Tampa, Fla.), who made 4-of-9 3-point shots versus Canada Friday, continued to connect from beyond the 3-point arc and swished a pair during the run.
“The first group came out intense and when the second group came in, their starters were kind of tired and our depth just really kicked in,” remarked the 17-year-old Winslow. “It just seems like guys can come in and benefit our team. So that’s something that going to help us win the gold medal because we have 12 high-level guys and most teams don’t have that.”
A 7-2 start of the third quarter built the U.S. advantage to 26 points, 54-26, and from there the U.S. ran away to a 72-44 lead after three quarters and to the eventual 100-60 victory.
The U.S. shot well, hitting on 59.5 percent of its shots, while sinking 6-of-12 from 3-point. Collecting a 42-26 rebounding advantage, the U.S. forced 19 turnovers and scored 24 points off those misques. Lithuania shot just 36.2 percent for the game, and was only 3-of-18 from 3-point.
“(Defending) the 3-point line was critical and the 3-point line is going to be critical again tomorrow. The reason that we’ve been able to make it to the gold medal game is that we’ve been able to hold teams down 3-point shooting wise up to this point in time. We haven’t had one of those games where someone’s made 15 or 16 3-point shots. We’ve done a pretty good job of understanding the importance of guarding that and we’re going to need to that tomorrow,” said Donovan.
“These teams over here you’ve got to take away the 3-point line, especially Lithuania,” added USA captain Marcus Smart. “They were down a couple games ago about 20 in the fourth quarter and came back. They have exploited teams at the 3-point line and they have some very good players who are crafty and skillful and understand the game, and they have some really good plays they run for those players to get them open and the shots they want.”
With six different countries claiming gold at the last six U19 World Championships, either Serbia or the USA is about to capture a second and end that streak.
What the victory will require wasn’t lost on U.S. guard Williams-Goss, who said, “It will take everything. It will take a level of togetherness; it’s going to take commitment and effort to do all the little things, and really it’s going to take a high level of focus. We know Serbia is a really good team and they’re not going to beat themselves so we can’t go out there and make a lot of mental mistakes and beat ourselves.”
In Saturday’s classification round action at the U19 Worlds, Spain bettered Croatia 75-64, while Canada defeated China 110-100 in a triple-overtime thriller. Russia downed Brazil 60-53 to capture 9th place and Iran beat Argentina 79-68 to claim 11th place.
Assisting Donovan with the 2013 USA U19 World Championship Team are Tony Bennett (University of Virginia) and Shaka Smart (Virginia Commonwealth University).
Originally known as the FIBA Junior World Championship, the tournament was held every four years between 1979-2007. FIBA now conducts the U19 World Championship every two years. USA men's teams are 77-13 in the U19/Junior World Championships and have won four gold and three silver medals, most recently finishing with a 7-2 record and in fifth place in 2011 and 9-0 and with the gold medal in 2009.