US tops Ukraine to finish group play
BILBAO, Spain — The bags were already packed and the Americans had already checked out of their rooms.
The only thing standing between them and Barcelona was a game against Ukraine, and it took them a little while to get into it.
The U.S. national team eventually pulled away to win it and finish pool play unbeaten, getting 17 points from James Harden and 14 from Stephen Curry in a 95-71 victory Thursday at the Basketball World Cup.
Once that was over, the Americans could truly turn their attention where they wanted it.
“We’re looking forward to getting to Barcelona and starting the next part of the journey, the medal rounds, and taking things seriously,” Curry said.
Anthony Davis finished with 12 points for the Americans, who will face Mexico on Saturday night in the round of 16. The Mexicans finished fourth in Group D.
It was closer than the usual U.S. game, but the Americans were never in any danger of losing in the second half after seizing control just before halftime against a methodical Ukraine team coached by former NBA coach Mike Fratello.
The only scare was a hard landing by starting guard Kyrie Irving with 1:12 left, but he eventually got up and walked off holding his lower back. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star was expected to be all right.
The Americans left later Thursday for the next round, held in the city where the famed U.S. Dream Team won gold in the 1992 Olympics.
International fans and journalists still refer to a U.S. squad as the Dream Team, though this one doesn’t rise to that level. But despite some significant player losses that left them with the youngest team they have sent to an international competition since pros could be used, the Americans have shown an occasional ability to dominate like some of their more potent predecessors.
They still managed to finish close to their tournament-best average of 104 points despite not making a field goal for nearly the first 5 minutes of the game.
Krzyzewski thought the poor start offensively may have been caused by the hectic schedule the Americans had before the game, and the fact they had already clinched Group C a day earlier. Harden thought it was a result of the U.S. playing the second game of the day session, leaving less time than usual to get loose.
“We didn’t really have a chance to warm up. It was kind of like AAU basketball, so we kind of had to hurry up and get out there and get ready,” Harden said. “So first quarter we were kind of sluggish, second quarter we picked it up and second half we played pretty well.”
The Ukrainians were eliminated from contention after finishing 2-3. Fratello said they were told they fell short by one point in point differential and lost tiebreakers.
Fratello is a longtime TV analyst who returned to the sideline in 2011 to work for Ukrainian federation president Alexander “Sasha” Volkov, one of his former players with the Atlanta Hawks.
His team made the Americans work for nearly a half, then ended up getting blown out like everyone else.
“I was very proud of our performance,” Fratello said. “We hung in there for about three quarters, kept it between 12 and 15, 12 and 15, but we turned the ball over every time we chipped away.”
The U.S. had another poor start, just as it did in previous victories over Turkey and the Dominican Republic.
There were hundreds of empty seats behind the basket that had been filled for the first game by Finland fans whose team lost. They didn’t miss much early from the Americans, who took nearly half of the opening period to make their first field goal and trailed for much of the first half.
Ukraine led 19-14 after one and was still ahead 27-25 midway through the second before the Americans finally put a spurt together. Curry nailed a pair of 3-pointers as the U.S. outscored Ukraine 19-5 over the final 4:43 to take a 44-32 into halftime.
It grew to 69-54 after three, and a couple quick baskets at the beginning of the period got the Americans off and running toward an easy final quarter, though there were some concerned faces when Irving lost his balance after leaping and landed with an easily heard thud.
He finished with 11 points, as did DeMarcus Cousins.