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

AP
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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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