US tops Ukraine to fin­ish group play

The Times Herald (Norristown, PA) - - THE STAT SHEET - By BRIAN MA­HONEY

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.

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