Second day for me in Kaunas and the intensity of the competition was increasing as we approached the semi-finals. But before the showdown in the evening, there were several classification games.
South Korea won the opener by beating Egypt 89-83 behind a great effort and good shooting in the right moments. Not much to add to the game besides that the Koreans celebrated this victory like they won the Gold Medal. Great.
The second game of the day was of more interest because it saw two European nations that normally play the Medal rounds compete for the 9th spot in the competition. The game was tied during the first half as Damien Inglis had some good moments for the French team with 10 points and 8 rebounds at the halftime buzzer while the Lithuanians were driven by their under-estimated PG Ernestas Serkevicius who was perfect with 4/4 FGs in the first twenty minutes. In the second half, Lithuania run away quickly to a 10 point lead but France did not give up with Inglis giving his best. After sitting out most of the second half because of foul trouble, Serkevicius came back in the decisive moments to stop French runs with big points and give his country a 9th place.
China faced Canada to have the right to dispute the game for the 5th place on Sunday. Canada started better into the game behind the great plays of their 15 year old talent Justin Jackson. The athletic wing was everywhere on the court and showing his great upside. For China, Zhou Qi was leading the scorers in the first half but they seemed to be over-matched by the Canadian athleticism. Canada ran away to +10 in the beginning of the second half but China came back with Zhou dominating in the paint and Guo Xiao Peng playing his best game of the tournament. However, Canada was driven by their scoring PG Kevin Zabo while Jackson continued with his great play and qualified the North Americans for the 5th place game on Sunday.
Czech Republic and Argentina fought to reach the 5th place game afterwards and the game was a real close one right from the start. Gabriel Deck was present with 10 points in the first half as he regularly found good places to score in the paint. On the Czech side, Radovan Kouril showed why he got recruited by Alicante from Spain as he scored 7 points and had 6 assists. But Argentina was up by 3 after the first two quarters. The Gauchos could increase their lead in the second half to more than 10 points behind Rodrigo Haag’s scoring and Alvaro Merlo playmaking skills. Jiri Dedek could bring the Czechs back into reaching distance but Deck finished the game with his 28 points and 9 rebounds.
Semi-Final 1: Spain – USA 66-95
The game started slowly as both teams only scored three points in the first three minutes but Spain had already 4 team fouls despite playing zone. But the USA also had their foul problems as Jahlil Okafor earned his third in the first three minutes as well. Ilimane Diop had an important role in the middle of the zone as he was the only one able to compete with the American height. USA set up their typical zone press and brought in Connor Frankamp to break the Spanish zone but he missed his first options. Spain could create a four point lead but took bad decisions on several offensive possession by finishing too quickly and missing. Frankamp used it to make his first long range shot but Xavier Moix answered by two triples on his side. Spain could even increase their lead to 7 by running the clock down to get easy options in the paint. The “Roja” managed to come with a 19-14 lead into the first quarter break.
The United States intensified their zone press defense and forced several quick shots by the Spanish team. On offense, they tried to attack the zone over the high-post and could tie the score at 21. Justise Winslow brought a lot of energy from the bench and made a couple of impressive plays in the paint for his team while Spain hit shots to stay in the game. Agusti Sans who was suspended in the quarter-finals showed his ball handling skills and found several times the open man on the drive. This helped Spain to stay ahead as the Americans were unable to score from outside. Diop came back to the court but quickly got his third foul that was followed by a Technical that looked already like the game deciding play with 4 minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Spain reacted well as they did not drop their intensity level but another technical this time by their coach gave the United States a bunch of free-throws so that they could put the score to 40-34 in their favor. But the Europeans showed some “cojones” hitting a three-pointer that was however answered by Tyus Jones on the buzzer. 43-37 in favor of the United States.
Okafor dominated immediately in the paint to start the second half and could bring the United States a 12 point lead after 2 minutes and a half. The referees continued their festival on both sides and it were the Spanish that insisted offensively to bring the score back to single-digits. Spain risked everything by bringing Diop back to the court but it did not really help them as the US were running away to +15 at the end of the third quarter. The last quarter continued like the previous one with the Americans dominating the game and managing their lead perfectly. The intensity of the game was gone and for the last ten minutes, the game was nothing more than a fast break running show by the United States that qualified for the Final on Sunday.
MVP: Justise Winslow 17pts (8/14 FGs), 13rebs, 3asts, 2blks
Semi-Final 2: Australia – Croatia
Australia started the game with Ben Simmons defending on Mario Hezonja but the Croatian immediately scored two three-pointers to give his team the early 6-0 lead. But Mirko Djeric answered with two bombs on his own while Dante Exum gave Australia a first lead on a fastbreak slam and a very difficult reverse dunk on the drive. Croatia took a timeout but Jack Purchase hit a second three pointer that was answered by Marko Arapovic immediately. Hezonja came back out of a passive stretch and reduce the gap to 1 point and found Arapovic on a great drive. The forward then played the last offense of the quarter and scored a superb layup over Simmons to give Croatia a 24-21 lead at the break.
Hezonja started the second quarter on the same level and scored 5 points in a row to force a first Australian timeout after only 2 minutes. Nicholas Duncan did a good job for the Aussies in the paint while Djeric made back-to-back threes to tie the game again. Australia changed their defense and could generate some turnovers and created a lead on another assist by Djeric. The guard was unstoppable and gave his team a 5 point lead on a 14-0 run going into the last two minutes of the first half. Croatia did not look upset though but they could not do anything to prevent Australia from being up by 7 at the half.
Australia started the second half with their zone-press with Simmons at the top in order to create turnovers or bad decisions by Croatia. Exum drew fouls and brought their lead to ten points from the free-throw line. The Croats set up a zone defense where Australia struggled to find good positions in the beginning. Back-up guard Michael Luxford was key with a big steal, a triple and an offensive rebound to give Australia a new double-digit lead. Purchase hit another three-pointer from the corner to bring the score to 59-43 and Djeric hit his 7th bomb to destroy all Croatian hopes. Hezonja stole a ball to finish on an impressive windmill dunk but this looked more like cosmetics at that moment than anything else. But it seemed to have impressed the Australian team a bit as they missed their next offenses and the Europeans could cut the lead to 11. But two free-throws and a tough drive on the buzzer could have been the dagger as the Emus were up again by 15 points.
In the first play of the last quarter, Croatia immediately turned it over and the game looked decided as Simmons and Exum finished great plays close to the rim. Domagoj Bosnjak hit two consecutive threes though that brought the score back to –13 and Hezonja went coast-to-coast with great handles to keep the hope alive. Arapovic could bring the score even to single digits by scoring two free-throws after a unsportsmanlike foul by Duncan. But Exum hit two big shots in a row to calm the Croatian hopes. Paolo Marinelli and Hezonja answered with two triples and Australia had to take a timeout at the score of 76-69 in their favor. The Croats were unable to do something else than shoot three-pointers against the Aussie zone and Exum crucified them with a fantasitc drive and finish at the two minute mark. Purchase hit the dagger with a tough three-pointer on the 24 seconds buzzer and Australia made it to the Final creating the unexpected upset.
MVP: Mirko Djeric 21pts (7/11 3FGs), 9asts, 3stls