PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Thanks to a dominant second half showing, the 2013 USA Basketball Men’s U19 squad (9-0) is FIBA U19 World Champions for just the third time in the last eight U19 championships since 1987. Behind 17 points from Montrezl Harrell (University of Louisville/Tarboro, N.C.), the United States outscored Serbia (7-2) 42-30 in the second half to break open a tight gold-medal affair and claim an 82-68 victory in Prague, Czech Republic on Sunday night.
Also aiding the U.S. gold medal effort were Nigel Williams-Goss (Findlay Prep/Happy Valley, Ore.), who finished with 15 points and made 2-of-3 3-point attempts; Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke University/Houston, Texas) made 2-of-6 3-pointers and was credited with 12 points; Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State University/ Flower Mound, Texas) tallied 11 points and Elfrid Payton (University of Louisiana/Gretna, La.) finished with nine points and U.S. team-highs of six assists and five steals.
Aaron Gordon (Archbishop Mitty H.S./San Jose, Calif.), who averaged USA highs of 12.6 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, plus 2.0 steals a game while shooting 61.2 percent from the field, was selected MVP of the U19 World Championship. Joining him on the five-player U19 all-tournament team was teammate Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young H.S./Chicago, Ill.), and rounding out the team were Vasilje Micic of Serbia, Dante Exum of Australia and Dario Saric of Croatia.
“I feel very, very honored my country asked me to coach this team. I think USA Basketball could have picked a lot of coaches who would have done a wonderful job,” said USA and University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan. “I thought the thing that changed our team was we had a great group coming back from last year (2012 USA U18 Championship Team) that had some experience, and I think the adding of Nigel (Williams-Goss), (Aaron) Gordon, (Jahlil) Okafor, Justise Winslow, those guys being a little bit younger so to speak, added a different element to our team. It was a special team and I just feel honored that I could be a part of it.”
Just as was the case when the two teams met in second round play on July 3, and the U.S. earned a hard-fought 71-62 win, this game too was a tight contest. Serbia led by as many as five points early, and the U.S. briefly enjoy an 18-point lead late in the game.
Serbia opened a 9-5 lead and the U.S., with Sulaimon contributing five points, went on a 9-0 run to move ahead 13-9. Thanks to a Sulaimon 3-pointer with 38 seconds left in the opening stanza the USA took a 26-22 lead into the second quarter.
Leading 32-29 the USA’s Mike Tobey (University of Virginia/Monroe, N.Y.) and Okafor scored back-to-back buckets to up the USA’s lead to 36-29, but Serbia outscored the U.S. 9-4 to end the quarter, leaving the Americans ahead 40-38.
The game remained up for grabs as the score stood at 48-47 in favor of the Americans with 4:28 left in the third. Williams-Goss connected on a 3-pointer, then the U.S. press forced Serbia into a turnover that resulted in a steal by Gordon, who fed Sulaimon for a score. Next Smart tipped one in at the rim and just like that the USA lead had ballooned to 55-47.
Leading 57-51 going into the final 10 minutes, Serbia scored first to cut the lead to four, 57-53, but that was as close as they would get as the U.S. countered with seven consecutive points and a 13-1 overall run that left it in front 70-54 with 7:01 to play. From there, the Americans’ advantage never dipped below 12 points as the U.S. remained in control and posted the 82-68 win.
“I thought a couple of things happened to us,” explained Donovan. “One, I think (Justise) Winslow, (Aaron) Gordon and (Marcus) Smart getting in foul trouble in the first half, those are three of our better pressing guys. We were never able to get the style of play, the tempo we really wanted and we were probably a little bit slower in certain cases then we would have been if those guys were on the floor.
“I thought in the third quarter, although we had to rest Justin because he had four fouls, we got back a little bit more to playing our style and we decided to go small and do a lot of switching. Really I thought Gordon and (Montrezl) Harrell, and even when Justise fouled out we put Marcus (Smart) at the four spot, but we just played small and I thought our press and our quickness and our speed was so much more disruptive in the second half than the first half because of the foul trouble we had to endure.”
Serbia shot 59.1 percent from the field over the first two quarters, and was 5-of-10 from 3-point, and the U.S. was only able to force six turnovers. The second half was a different story. Cranking up its defensive intensity, the USA limited Serbia to 34.6 percent shooting in the third and fourth quarters and chased them into 11 turnovers.
“Serbia is a great team and they run their stuff very well and they make you pay,” said Marcus Smart. “They have a lot of great shooters so it is kind of hard, you have to guard the 3-point line and protect the basket.
“We knew that they were going to get worn down and that was our goal, just keep bringing the pressure, a hundred times more in the second half and eventually they were going to wear down.”
“It was very satisfying to come away knowing we did what we had to do and to come away with our goal and that was to win the gold medal,” added Marcus Smart.
In finals play Sunday, Lithuania (7-2) overcame Australia (4-5) in overtime 106-100 to claim the bronze medal; Spain (7-2) got the better of Canada (4-5) 72-68 to capture fifth place; and China (4-5) beat Croatia (5-4) 94-80 to take seventh 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 78-13 in the U19/Junior World Championships and have now won five gold and three silver medals.