U.S. men’s basketball team suffers rare loss in qualifying for worlds

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Jeff Van Gundy warned the Americans that they were in for a serious challenge.

To his chagrin, he was right, and the U.S. was handed a rare loss.

Francisco Cruz, a former University of Wyoming guard, scored 24 points, Mexico opened with an 18-0 run and went on to beat the United States 78-70 on Thursday night in a qualifying game for next year’s FIBA World Cup.

According to USA Basketball, it was just the second loss by the U.S. in 30 games against Mexico — with the other defeat coming in the 2011 Pan American Games. This U.S. roster had no Olympians or NBA All-Stars, like the teams that suffered four combined losses at the 2011 and 2015 Pan Am Games.

Orlando Mendez-Valdez, the 2009 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, added 20 points for Mexico, which held the U.S. scoreless for the first 5:51 and forced the Americans into missing their first 10 shots from the floor.

“Mexico dominated us from the start and that’s on me,” Van Gundy said. “We were not ready to compete at the level Mexico did. Give them all the credit, they played a great, great game.”

Marcus Thornton, the most notable player on the U.S. roster who played parts of eight NBA seasons, scored 14 points for the U.S. USA Basketball is using a roster composed primarily of G League players for the qualifying rounds. Xavier Munford added 11 points while David Stockton, the son of Dream Team point guard John Stockton, and Reggie Hearn each had 10 for the Americans.

The U.S. lost for the first time in 10 contests under Van Gundy, who is coaching this team that’s tasked with getting the team of NBA stars that will be coached by Gregg Popovich to the World Cup.

“We can’t underestimate how hard it is going to be to play on the road, at altitude, and against a team desperate to qualify for the FIBA World Cup,” Van Gundy said leading up to the game. “We have to make sure we match that type of intensity and passion that we know they’ll bring.”

By the time the U.S. found its stride, it was already in deep trouble. Mexico led 31-10 after the first quarter, then staved off a big second-half rally try by the U.S.

Trey McKinney-Jones’ basket late in the third quarter capped a 15-1 run and put the U.S. within 53-51. Thornton made a pair of 3-pointers about a minute apart in that burst, and Hearn’s 3-pointer early in the fourth cut Mexico’s lead to 56-54.

But the U.S. never got the lead.

“In the second half we competed at a high level and that high level got us back in the game, but we just couldn’t get over the hump,” Van Gundy said.

The Americans (4-1) — who have already ensured themselves a spot in the second round of qualifying that starts in September — end the first-round series of games Sunday when they go to Havana to face Cuba (0-5). It’ll be the first time a U.S. men’s national team has played in Havana since the 1991 Pan American Games. Mexico (3-2) also wraps up its first round on Sunday, when it plays at Puerto Rico (3-2).

Under FIBA’s new qualifying format, teams are playing home-and-home games against teams in their region to earn places in the World Cup in China, which begins on Aug. 31, 2019. That tournament will qualify seven teams for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

This was the first time the U.S. played a true road game during this tournament. The Americans opened qualifying in November with an 85-78 win in what was a “home” game for Puerto Rico — but the contest was actually played in Orlando because of continued problems in San Juan following Hurricane Maria.

And this was very much a real road atmosphere.

Not only was the game played at Mexico City’s 7,500-foot altitude, but in a filled 5,000-seat arena that Mexican officials said sold out in only 45 minutes.

The tone was set by the U.S. turning the ball over on each of its first three possessions, and Mexico was off and running.

The U.S. routed Mexico back in November, winning by 36 points.

That was a very different Mexico team.

Only four players from the Mexican roster then were in uniform on Thursday night, with the team now able to add those who were playing in their various professional leagues and unable to take part when the qualifying rounds began. Cruz and Mendez-Valdez each had 13 points by halftime, and Gustavo Ayon was a big factor even without big numbers — four points, four rebounds and five assists by the break.

Ayon appeared in 135 NBA games in parts of three seasons with four different franchises, and just helped Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid win the EuroLeague.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships
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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Pairs Short Program
1. Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 81.96
2. Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 66.86
3. Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea —- 65.75
4. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 63.45
5. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 63.12
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 56.96
7. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 50.72
8. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 46.96
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 46.81
10. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 45.27
11. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 43.99

Rhythm Dance
1. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 91.90
2. Caroline Green/Michael Parsons — 81.40
3. Emilea Zingas/Vadym Kolesnik — 78.18
4. Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko — 77.37
5. Lorraine McNamara/Anton Spiridonov — 76.23
6. Emily Bratti/Ian Somerville — 75.91
7. Eva Pate/Logan Bye — 75.52
8. Isabella Flores/Ivan Desyatov — 73.91
9. Oona Brown/Gage Brown — 72.80
10. Katarina Wolfkostin/Jeffrey Chen — 69.05
11. Angela Ling/Caleb Wein — 68.53
12. Leah Krauskopf/YuanShi Jin — 52.59
13. Cara Murphy/Joshua Levitt — 50.88
14. Caroline Depietri/TJ Carey — 48.28
WD. Raffaella Koncius/Alexey Shchepetov

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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Knierim/Frazier, Chock/Bates lead U.S. Figure Skating Championships, age records in play

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, teens will likely win the men’s and women’s events. The pre-event favorites in pairs and ice dance, and now leaders after day one, are all in their 30s.

World champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier easily took the largest pairs’ short program lead in nationals history in what may be their last U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Madison Chock and Evan Bates, eyeing their fourth U.S. title, put up the biggest gap in a U.S. short dance since its inception in 2011.

It’s believed that no pair or dance couple of skaters in their 30s has won a U.S. title in more than 50 years.

Knierim and Frazier, who last March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, tallied 81.96 points to open the four-day nationals on Thursday.

They lead by 15.1 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe going into Saturday’s free skate in San Jose, California, the largest first-day pairs’ gap since the Code of Points replaced the 6.0 scoring system in 2006.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

The top three pairs from last year’s event — which Knierim and Frazier missed due to him contracting COVID-19 — are no longer competing together. Knierim and Frazier had a clean skate, while Chan and Howe, who entered as silver medal favorites, counted a fall.

After nationals, a committee selects three U.S. pairs for March’s world championships in Japan.

Before the fall Grand Prix Series, the 31-year-old Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“I don’t like to just put it out there and say it is the last or not going to be the last because life just has that way of throwing curveballs, and you just never know,” Frazier said this month. “But I would say that this is the first nationals where I’m going to go in really trying to soak up every second as if it is my last because you just don’t know.”

Knierim is going for a fifth U.S. title, which would tie the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka Ina, Tai Babilonia, Randy Gardner, Karol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Knierim is also trying to become the first female pairs’ skater in her 30s to win a national title since 1993. Knierim and Chock are trying to become the first female skaters in their 30s to win a U.S. title in any discipline since 1995.

After being unable to defend their 2021 U.S. title last year, Knierim and Frazier reeled off a series of historic results in what had long been the country’s weakest discipline.

They successfully petitioned for an Olympic spot and placed sixth at the Games, best for a U.S. pair since 2002. They considered retirement after their world title, which was won without the top five teams from the Olympics in attendance. They returned in part to compete as world champions and to give back to U.S. skating, helping set up younger pairs for success.

They became the first U.S. pair to win two Grand Prix Series events, then in December became the first U.S. pair to make a Grand Prix Final podium (second place). The world’s top pairs were absent; Russians banned due to the war in Ukraine and Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China leaving competition ice (for now).

Knierim and Frazier’s real test isn’t nationals. It’s worlds, where they will likely be the underdog to home favorites Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who edged the Americans by 1.3 points in the closest Grand Prix Final pairs’ competition in 12 years.

Like Knierim and Frazier, Chock and Bates delivered as overwhelming favorites in Thursday’s rhythm dance.

The defending champions tallied 91.90 points, distancing Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, who scored 81.40, going into Saturday’s free dance.

“Freedom and joy came through right from the start of the program,” Chock said on USA Network. “There was no holding back.”

Last year’s silver and bronze medalists aren’t in the field: Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue retired after winning Olympic bronze, while Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker withdrew last week, citing mental health.

So Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, are almost certain to make the podium for an 11th consecutive year, which would be one shy of the record for any discipline, and lead the three couples picked for March’s worlds.

“We just want to earn it,” Bates said. “Just because we’ve been around longer than most doesn’t necessarily dictate the results.”

Bates, who last year became the oldest U.S. champion in any discipline in decades, has made 12 career senior nationals podiums with Chock and former partner Emily Samuelson. It is believed that a 13th finish in the top three would break the U.S. record for a single discipline he currently shares with Michelle KwanNathaniel Niles and Theresa Weld Blanchard.

But Chock and Bates’ sights are set on a place they’ve never been — the top step of a world championships podium. They earned silver or bronze a total of three times, including a bronze last year. The gold and silver medalists aren’t competing this season.

However, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier relegated the Americans to silver at December’s Grand Prix Final.

“If we don’t win gold at worlds, we’ll be disappointed,” Bates, whose first senior nationals in 2008 came when this year’s women’s singles favorite, Isabeau Levito, was 10 months old, said earlier this month. “We’ve set the goal for ourselves in the past and haven’t met it yet.”

Nationals continue later Thursday with the women’s short.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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