USA Slips Past Slovenia 82-79
After falling behind by 13 points in the first quarter the 2005 USA U21 World Championship Team (5-0) fought back to nip Slovenia (2-3) 82-79 at the 2005 FIBA U21 World Championship on Wednesday afternoon in Mar del Plata, Argentina. Curtis Withers (Charlotte / Charlotte, N.C.) and Terrence Roberts (Syracuse / Jersey City, N.J.) came up big on the inside with 15 and 14 points, respectively, after shooting woes held the USA to just 13.6 percent (3-33 3pt FGs) from 3-point land.
The USA advances to quarterfinals play at the top of Group B and will face the winner of tonight's Canada versus Israel game, which will determine the Group A fourth place team, on Aug. 12 at 8:00 p.m. (EDT and subject to change).
"No matter where you play basketball, whether it be professional, international or in college, sometimes the team that plays better doesn't always win," said USA and Saint Joseph's University (Pa.) head coach Phil Martelli. "And today that happened. The team that played better didn't win. I salute Slovenia for their efforts and I agree with their coach in that players we did not anticipate playing significant minutes did a terrific job tonight. I wish them well in the rest of the tournament."
"We had two early chances to get ready for the medal round, we had (the Global Games in) Texas and then pool play," said Withers. "So we have to take what we have and what we learned from these games, as well as how to better warm up, how to be consistent and what we need to do to win. It starts with defense and we also have to be one team."
Unlike in previous contests for the USA, this one went down to the wire as an off-balanced 3-point attempt by Slovenia's Miha Fon at the buzzer kept it from going into extra periods. With 6.6 seconds showing on the clock, and an infraction to give before sending the U.S. to the line, Marcus Williams (Connecticut / Los Angeles, Calif.) was fouled on an inbounds pass. On the next inbounds play, it was J.J. Redick (Duke / Roanoke, Va.) who was fouled and sent to the line. Ranked second in the NCAA during the past season for his 93.8 percent accuracy from the stripe, Redick uncharacteristically missed his first attempt, but swished the next and Slovenia had 4.9 seconds to get the ball up the court. Slovenia got the ball in, Fon received a pass and finally broke free from his defender, but it was too late and he wasn't able to get off a good shot as the U.S. came away with the close win.
Shooting 28.6 percent (6-21 FGs) in the first quarter, while allowing Slovenia, which made good on 64.3 percent (9-14 FGs), several uncontested layups, the result was a wake-up call. In addition to the poor shooting, which included 0-of-5 from beyond the arc, the United States amassed four turnovers and had just a pair of assists in the first 10 minutes.
Slovenia stomped out to an early 7-0 lead after the U.S. wasn't able to convert on its first three possessions, and by the 5:01 mark the lead was up to 15-4. By the time the buzzer sounded the teams to their benches for the break, the USA had dug itself a 26-13 hole.
"I don't think we prepared mentally for this game," said Redick. "We weren't sharp, even in warm-ups, and it carried over to the first quarter. It took us almost the whole entire first half to get it up to an even level of effort, to focus our energy on Slovenia. When you do that to a team and give them confidence, they're going to hang around the whole game and that's what happened."
The U.S. came to life in the second quarter and made 50 percent from the field (14-28 FGs), while also registering 14 steals. Rajon Rondo (Kentucky / Louisville, Ky.), who finished with five steals, started the comeback with a put-back at 9:09 (26-15). Following a Slovenian layup at 8:34 (28-15), the United States sprinted out on a 16-2 run that gave the Americans a slim lead, 31-30, with 5:29 to go in the half. During the run the red, white and blue received points from seven different players and notched three steals. Slovenia retook the lead on a jumper by Sasa Zagorac at 4:45, but the U.S. returned to the top on its first 3-pointer of the game by Rudy Gay (Connecticut / Baltimore, Md.) 10 seconds later. Slovenia tied the score at 34-all on a pair of free throws at 4:09, but an Allan Ray (Villanova / Bronx, N.Y.) steal and layup at 3:47 gave the USA a lead it would never relinquish, 36-34. Roberts collected a pair of steals and notched four points late in the half on consecutive Slovenian possessions and with 2:33 showing on the clock the Americans were starting to pull away, 42-36. However, every time the U.S. tried to make a run Slovenia stabbed back and by the midway buzzer the lead was 49-44.
Following a sluggish third quarter start, the USA got six points off steals from three different players, as well as a block by Withers that sent the ball into the stands, and with 16:38 to play in the game, the U.S. led 56-48. After pulling away by 10 points, 66-56, late in the third stanza, the U.S. was outscored 5-0 in the final 1:37 and the period ended with a 66-61 U.S. edge.
Roberts grabbed an offensive board and scored at 3:43 to put the USA up by nine, 79-70, and then its offense went cold. Slovenia strung together seven straight points on a traditional 3-point play and four more from the line and at 1:06, the game closed to 79-77. Rondo ended the USA's scoring drought after swiping the ball from Slovenia and running the court for a layup to give the U.S. an 81-77 pad with 25.9 seconds to go. Blaz Cresnar was fouled with the clock running down and scored his team's final points from the line with 6.6 seconds to go in the game.
In addition to the combined 29 points from Roberts and Withers, Ray scored 12 and notched five steals, while Gay had 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
Zagorac scored a game-high 15 points for Slovenia.
The United States pulled out the win despite shooting just 40.5 percent (34-84 FGs) from the field and a frigid 13.6 percent (3-22 3pt FGs) from 3-point. Outrebounding Slovenia 39-31, the United States had a USA U21 record 25 steals and forced a total of 30 turnovers, but had 17 turnovers themselves.
In other Group B action, Lithuania (4-1) finished No. 2 in Group B with a 96-75 victory over China (0-5), while Puerto Rico (2-2) and Nigeria (1-3) face each other at 6:15 p.m. Playing in Cordoba, Group A action sees Israel (1-3) and Canada (1-3) at 6:15 p.m. and Argentina (3-1) versus Australia (4-0) at 8:30 p.m. Greece has the night off.
Acting as Martelli's assistants are collegiate head coaches Dennis Felton from the University of Georgia and James ‘Bruiser' Flint from Drexel University (Pa.).