Reigning champions the United States were given a huge scare in a nail-biting 93-92 overtime victory over Turkey at the Basketball World Cup on Tuesday to labour into the second round.
Khris Middleton was the overtime hero for Gregg Popovich’s young team, who are chasing a third straight title, but are missing their stellar names and are yet to really gel.
Following Sunday’s comfortable but unspectacular 88-67 win over the Czech Republic in their opener, Popovich said the team “got a ways to go”.
There was more evidence of that in Shanghai as they made hard work of dismissing Turkey, beaten by Team USA in the 2010 final.
“I have to give a shout-out to everybody on the team, we stuck together and grinded this thing out,” said Myles Turner, of the Indiana Pacers, calling it one of the best games he had played in.
“We know we are going to get every team’s best shot. We are Team USA, teams are gunning for us and want to beat us.”
The US led at half-time only for Turkey — ranked 17th in the world to America’s number one — to tie at 59-59 with less than two minutes left of the third quarter.
That brought a huge roar from much of the crowd. After taking the lead with 12 seconds to play, the Turks looked all set for a famous victory, only for Jayson Tatum to rescue the Americans by making two of three free throws at the death to make it 81-81.
The Americans were trailing in overtime and headed for a rare loss, before Milwaukee Bucks forward Middleton — who was to lead the US scoring with 15 points — held his nerve to nail two free throws to snatch a dramatic win.
In contrast, Turkey missed a succession of free throws down the stretch.
Popovich’s team, one of the youngest at the 32-team competition, look vulnerable and, on current form, Serbia look the more potent.
Team USA lost 98-94 to Australia in a warm-up ahead of the World Cup, ending a run of 78 consecutive wins in major competitions and exhibition games.
Turner admitted that they had plenty of room for improvement.
“The chemistry is unbelievable right now and it can only go up from here,” he added.
“A game where we can say we were battle-tested and we know we have to keep on building from.”
– ‘Clunky’ –
Australia, another team touted as a threat to the US, reached the second round with a Joe Ingles-inspired 81-68 victory over Senegal in Group H.
They recovered from an indifferent start to grind down Senegal with Utah Jazz forward Ingles one assist away from World Cup history.
Australia led 36-33 at half-time after narrowly trailing a determined Senegal at the end of the first quarter.
Ingles, who said the Australians were “rattled” by Senegal in the first half, was instrumental in the victory with 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists — just one assist short of the first triple-double in World Cup history.
Patty Mills, the 31-year-old San Antonio Spurs guard, drilled 22 points.
Coach Andrej Lemanis called Senegal the tallest team he had faced and admitted his side had been “a little clunky at times” offensively.
Also in Group H, Lithuania are into the last 16 after beating Canada 92-69. France and the Dominican Republic also ensured they would progress from Group G.
However Greece, led by their NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, are in danger after they were squeezed out 79-78 by Brazil.