The glory days of the Golden Generation are now more than a decade in the rearview, but El Alma Argentina can still play at the highest level.
Argentina knocked out Olympic and world silver medalist Serbia 97-87 in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals in China on Tuesday, advancing to a Friday semifinal against Wednesday’s U.S.-France winner.
Longtime NBA forward Luis Scola is the only man on Argentina’s roster who was part of its past Olympic and world success — the biggest being an Olympic gold in 2004, the only time the U.S. hasn’t taken the title in the Dream Team era.
Argentina declined in the previous Olympic cycle, exiting the 2014 World Cup in the round of 16 and the Rio Olympics in the quarterfinals (to the U.S., after losing twice in group play). Stalwarts Manu Ginobili and Andres Nocioni retired from the national team. Carlos Delfino hasn’t played for it since, either.
Scola, a 39-year-old who could become the second-oldest Olympic basketball player in history next year, starred on Tuesday with 20 points. Argentina shot 54 percent overall, compared to 42 percent for Serbia. Point guard Facundo Campazzo had 18 points, 12 assists and six rebounds. A full box score is here.
“Campazzo absolutely dominating the game,” Serbian coach Aleksandar Đordevic said. “This is really his victory. Scola is their emotional leader and maybe one of the biggest legends of all times in basketball, and he really picked up their winning ability.”
MInutes after, Scola had already become frustrated with media declaring it an upset.
“It just bothers me that people keep talking about miracle and keep talking about surprise, keep talking about, people, nobody believing,” Scola said in the mixed zone. “I tell you, there was 22 people that believed from the last two months that we were going to be here. That’s all we need. Just 22. We’ve got them, and we believe this is far from a miracle.”
Scola now plays in the Chinese league. Nobody on the team plays in the NBA, making it the first Olympic or World Cup semifinalist without an NBA player since Greece in 2006. In fact, last season was the first in the league without any Argentine players seeing a minute of game action since 2001-02.
The Serbians, paced by Denver Nuggets All-Star Nikola Jokić, could now be relegated to a last-chance qualifying tournament next year to get into the Tokyo Olympics.
“I want to apologize to our people, our country, who believe in us,” Sacramento Kings forward Nemanja Bjelica said. “Maybe we were a better team than Argentina, but they showed us and they wanted this victory more than us.
“We weren’t ready for this game, mentally. … I played like s—.”
Surprising, given they were the world’s second-best team in the last Olympic cycle. Serbia overcame 2-3 group-play records at both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics to reach finals against the U.S., where they were soundly beaten by a combined 67 points. It’s no secret this U.S. roster lacks superstars. Serbia’s outlook became even brighter when the Americans eked out a one-point overtime win over 17th-ranked Turkey last week.
Now, Serbia must hope that the U.S. beats France and that Australia beats the Czech Republic in Wednesday’s quarters.
In that scenario, the consolation-round games will determine an Olympic qualifier out of Europe among Serbia, France, the Czech Republic and Poland, which lost to Spain in Tuesday’s later quarterfinal.
“You can see through [Bjelica’s] words what kind of mental pressure these guys were through all this tournament and before,” Dordevic said. “It was euphoria in our country. Everybody followed us. Everybody gave us a hand. Everybody really was eager to see us play in this tournament. We became favorites just like that. Everybody was writing, not only in our papers but everywhere around the world, that we are the team. We are the ones. We will win. This and that. That kind of thing, sometimes, does not help, but on the contrary. From his saying now I understand what kind of pressure he’s been through.”
Argentina already qualified for Tokyo as one of the top two Americas teams at the World Cup, along with the U.S. Now it eyes its first global medal since 2008.
“We are not big. We are not athletic. So we need to play really smart.” coach Sergio Hernandez said. “[Scola] is the man. We follow him.”
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