Tony Parker
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France, Serbia among favorites in last Olympic basketball qualifiers

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Serbia and France are good enough to win men’s basketball medals at the Olympics. First, they have to get there.

The final three places in the 12-team field are on the line in the three Olympic Qualifying Tournaments next week. Serbia and France, who won silver and bronze two years ago in the Basketball World Cup, will be among the favorites to earn berths after falling short last summer.

The new format to fill out the Olympics has 18 countries still in the running for spots in Rio. Six teams will be in each tournament, and the three winners will be Brazil bound.

Some teams still trying to get there are better than a few who have already qualified. Four of the world’s top 10 will be competing, including France (5th), Serbia (6th), Turkey (8th) and Greece (10th).

The Serbs have a powerful team and home-court advantage as they try to lock up a spot that eluded them in last year’s EuroBasket.

“We still need to fine-tune our teamwork but that’s normal at this stage of preparations. We are going through this process together so that we will still be playing until the end of the OQT, and hopefully after that too,” coach Aleksandar Djordjevic told FIBA.com after his team won its three tuneup games.

Serbia hosts one tournament in Belgrade that also includes Angola and Puerto Ricoin Group A. The Czech Republic, Japan and Latvia are in Group B.

In Manila, Philippines, it’s: Turkey, Canada and Senegal in Group A; with France,New Zealand and the hosts in Group B.

The Turin, Italy field: Greece, Mexico and Iran in Group A; Italy, Croatia and Tunisiain Group B.

Each team will play the others in its group, with the top two finishers in each advancing to the semifinals. The tournament champions will then be drawn into the Olympic field, with two slated to end up in a group with the U.S.

A look at some top contenders:

BELGRADE, SERBIA

SERBIA: The hosts swept a home-and-home with France and beat Greece, another top contender, in their warmup play. Serbia has one of Europe’s top point guards in Milos Teodosic and a top young prospect in Denver Nuggets All-Rookie selection Nikola Jokic, but will miss injured Timberwolves forward Nemanja Bjelica and Spurs center Boban Marjanovic, who is a free agent.

PUERTO RICO: Longtime guards J.J. Barea of the Dallas Mavericks and Carlos Arroyo should again provide the strength for the Puerto Ricans.

MANILA, PHILIPPINES

FRANCE: Tony Parker wants to cap his international career with an Olympic medal. The French failed to earn their chance playing on home soil last summer when Spain beat them in the Eurobasket semifinals, but stand a good chance now if they can hold on until the arrival of Nicolas Batum, who is an NBA free agent and won’t be available until after he signs a contract on July 7.

TURKEY: Their tough defense, anchored by NBA center Omer Asik in the middle, always gives the Turks a chance to stay in games. They gave the U.S. its toughest test in the 2014 Basketball World Cup.

CANADA: With Timberwolves star Andrew Wiggins sitting out, the Canadians could regret not locking up a spot when they blew a late lead against Venezuela in last year’s FIBA Americas semifinals.

TURIN, ITALY

GREECE: Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks is a do-everything star and Sacramento’s Kosta Koufos a solid center for a Greek team that scored a pair of victories over Turkey during its pre-tournament schedule.

ITALY: The Italians haven’t reached the Olympics since winning silver in 2004. But they have plenty of shooting behind NBA players Danilo Gallinari and Marco Belinelli and former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani, a top coach in Spurs assistant Ettore Messina, and the backing of a home crowd to get them there this time.

MORE: Analyzing U.S. Olympic men’s basketball roster

Chock, Bates charge to second U.S. title; Hubbell, Donohue charge the wrong way

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue
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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Evan Bates, who had just won his second U.S. ice dance title with partner Madison Chock, put it best.

“Ice dance is a strange sport in some ways,” he said.

Chock and Bates have had their share of unusual mishaps in their near 10-year career, but on Saturday night at the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina, everything was smooth sailing.

The couple’s exotic “Egyptian Snake Dance” free dance went off without a hitch, gaining the highest possible levels for nearly all of its elements and impressing judges with its intricacy, synchronization and striking lifts. It earned 134.23 points, giving the Montreal-based team the win with 221.86.

“It was (our coach Marie-France Dubreuil’s) idea for me to be a snake, and Evan a traveler who finds me,” Chock said of the routine. “It was just such a fun process, cool new characters for us to dive into, and we’ve really been enjoying it. It shows when we skate.”

Greensboro has been lucky for the skaters, who teamed up in 2011; they won their first U.S. title here in 2015. The five-year title gap is the longest in history for U.S. ice dance champions.

“It feels longer than five years,” Chock said with a breezy laugh. “It feels so much has changed, and in us as people as well (as dancers). We’re in a very good place, we could not be happier with the way the season has been going.”

If Chock’s humor was lighthearted, Madison Hubbell’s can only be described grim.

Hubbell and her partner, Zach Donohue, trailed their long-time rivals and Montreal training partners by about 1.3 points following Friday’s rhythm dance. A stellar outing of their Star is Born free dance might have won a third consecutive U.S. title; instead, it became a living nightmare.

“Out of the first element, the dance spin, we got turned around somehow and came out the wrong direction,” Hubbell said. “The next four elements, which are pretty valuable elements, all were facing the wrong direction.”

(Video available here for NBC Sports Gold subscribers; Hubbell and Donohue skate at the 1:06:50 mark.)

Not until their fifth element, a step sequence, did the skaters get back on track. In between, there was a world of hurt, likely unnoticed by many members of the audience but readily apparent to the judges, who had seen the free dance in  practice.

“Our twizzle sequence, it’s a high-scoring element, is supposed to charge right at the judges, and today it charged away from them,” Hubbell said. “In the rotational life, there’s a large leg flare that looks very cool going the opposite direction, and today I just opened my crotch right in front of the judges.”

The score was far from disastrous; Hubbell and Donohue’s 130.88 points for their “wrong-way” free dance gave them 217.19 overall. But it was a missed opportunity to show judges, and fans, the improvements they had made to A Star Is Born since the Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was probably one of the hardest performances, and not the most enjoyable,” Hubbell said. “It was a really thoughtful focus on the elements, and somehow putting one portion of the brain aside to fix things as best we could.”

The silver medal was Hubbell and Donohue’s first. They also won bronze medals in 2012, and 2015-17.

Kaitlyn Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, whose rhythm dance to Saturday Night Fever stole the show on Friday, felt their Flamenco-style free dance didn’t pack the same punch.

“Yesterday was such a high for us, in terms of (audience) reaction and performance, that tonight didn’t have the same euphoria when we finished,” Hawayek said. “Both Jean-Luc and I see the potential for it being much higher than what we were able to put out today.”

Despite the disappointment, the third team in the Montreal troika earned 118.57 points and won a second consecutive bronze medal with 201.16.

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As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Coco Gauff eliminated from Australian Open by Sofia Kenin

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Coco Gauff‘s run at the Australian Open ended in the round of 16, foiled by fellow American Sofia Kenin on Sunday.

Kenin ousted the 15-year-old phenom 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. Gauff, too, was bidding for her first major quarterfinal after a sterling seven months ignited by her march to the Wimbledon fourth round.

Gauff, ranked No. 684 this time last year, will near the top 50 after the Australian Open. She beat Venus Williams in the first round at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and took out defending Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka in the third round on Friday.

Gauff’s play catapulted her to fifth in U.S. Olympic singles qualifying, but she has half the points as fourth-place Madison Keys, and a country can’t qualify more than four players in singles. The Olympic field will be determined by the WTA rankings after the French Open in June.

The 14th seed Kenin, who beat Serena Williams in the 2019 French Open third round, ranks second behind Williams in U.S. Olympic qualifying. She will face No. 27 Wang Qiang or Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinals.

Kenin and Alison Riske are the two remaining U.S. women in the draw.

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

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