July 20, 2003 / Thessaloniki, Greece
A blowout turned into a barnburner for the USA juniors and after watching a 16-point halftime lead vanish, the USA fought back in the final period to capture an 82-80 electrifying win over Puerto Rico Sunday in the game to determine fifth place at the 2003 FIBA Junior World Championship. Forward Kevin Pittsnogle (West Virginia/Martinsburg, W.Va.), who started for the first time in place of the USA's leading scorer Paul Davis (Michigan State/Rochester, Mich.) who was out because of a left shoulder first degree separation that was suffered in Saturday's 77-72 win over Slovenia to advance to Sunday's game, led the USA with 17 points and made five 3-pointers.
The win was the second over Puerto Rico during the World Championship and improved the USA's record to a shining 7-1, tying the Americans for a best won-loss mark in the championship and earning the Americans a fifth place finish. The USA was eliminated from the medal round semifinals after suffering its only loss against Australia on July 16. Despite ending quarterfinal play 2-1 and in a three-way tie with Group E opponents Australia and Lithuania, based on the International Basketball Federation's (FIBA) tie breaking formula of the point differential between the three tied teams for their games against each other, Australia earned the Group's number one seed, Lithuania ranked second and USA fell to third and out of the medal race.
Ryan Hollins, starting his sixth consecutive game, contributed nine points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots in the victory. Hollins ended the tournament with 62 points (7.8 avg.), went 24-50 for a 48% field goal percentage, and grabbed 50 rebounds (31 offensive, 19 defensive) with seven assists, nine blocked shots and five steals.
In Sunday's gold medal game, Australia (7-1) continued on its roll and won its first junior championship handing Lithuania (5-3) a lopsided 126-92 loss, while in the bronze medal contest Greece (6-2) bounced back from its disappointing semifinals loss to defeat Croatia (5-3) 73-64.
"For us, it was a great finish to a wonderful tournament," remarked Ernie Kent, USA and University of Oregon head coach, who over the course of the last three summers as been part of three USA Basketball team coaching staffs and has compiled a stellar 26-2 record. "The USA's 7-1 finish was very important to us. I'm very proud of my team for not quitting and for battling through our tough loss to Australia.
"All of these kids have tremendous character and I've said this before, for them to sacrifice their summer and go 12-1 (7-1 Junior World Championships, 5-0 Global Games) on this trip, 7-1 here and to have the best record here in this tournament is remarkable. We had one bad game in the last 30 days and I can't be upset at that, I can only be proud of these guys because it took a lot for them to go through the adversity they've gone through and step up and finish this tournament off with two wins after the devastating loss to Australia."
The U.S. held a 16 point advantage at intermission, however, Puerto Rico outscored the Americans 27-12 in the third quarter and the USA had a battle on its hands until the very end. Thanks to 5-for-22 shooting in the third period, the U.S. watched as Puerto Rico outscored it 27-7 over the first 8:37 of the third quarter. Following a 3-pointer by Raul Orta, Puerto Rico had moved ahead 62-58 with 1:23 remaining in period three.
Graham Brown (Michigan/Mio, Mich.) scored off an offensive rebounds and with 47 seconds left in the quarter, and then Deron Williams (Illinois/The Colony, Texas) found Maurice Ager (Michigan State/Detroit, Mich.) on a back cut, and Ager was fouled after scoring on the drive. Making his foul shot, the U.S. carried a 63-62 lead into the final period.
Trailing 66-65, the University of Illinois' backcourt duo of Williams and Daniel Brown (Maywood, Ill.) teamed to score seven straight points as the U.S. slipped out ahead 72-66. But Puerto Rico refused to quit and with 5:50 to play in the game, a hoop by guard Jose Berea gave Puerto Rico a 75-74 lead. The two teams continued to battle for the win, and Jesus Veredejo gave Puerto Rico the lead on a 3-pointer with 3:42 to go, but Williams countered on the other end for the USA with a two-point bucket to tie the game 78-78.
Veredejo scored again to push Puerto Rico ahead 80-78 with 2:43 left, and this time Ryan Hollins (UCLA/ Pasadena, Calif.) scored deep inside to again even the game with 2:20 left. The USA scored the game's final points on a Williams pull-up in the middle of the lane with 1:31 to go.
"Coach called the ball screen for me because their big man doesn't come up to help and when came I came off the screen I was wide open and I made the jumper," said Williams on the play that produced the game winning points.
Following a miss by Puerto Rico and the rebound by Williams, the U.S. turned the ball over, but Puerto Rico's 7-2 center Peter Romas had his game tying attempt blocked by Hollins and the ball went out of bounds off of Puerto Rico. Running the shot clock down, the U.S. missed a shot that would have further expanded its lead and Puerto Rico blew another game tying opportunity by turning the ball over with 28 seconds to play.
The USA ran the clock down again and this time missed a 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds to go. Puerto Rico got the rebound and hurried the ball up the court, however Verdejo's long three bounced off the side of the rim and De'Angelo Alexander (Oklahoma/Midwest City, Okla.) came down with the rebound as time ran out to insure the USA win.
Struggling with its shooting in the first quarter, the USA fell behind and trailed by a 16-9 score with 3:38 remaining in the opening stanza. But powered by four points from Ager, the Americans launched an 11-2 run to close the quarter and at the buzzer led 20-18.
Making just 1-of-8 3-pointers tried in the first quarter, the 3-pointer was back in a big way in the second quarter thanks to Pittsnogle. He found his target four times in a span of just 2:23 as the U.S. rode his hot shooting hand to a 37-22 advantage with 6:07 to go in the second period. After Alexander added a pair of 3-pointers to the U.S. side, the Americans had quickly opened up a 19-point advantage, 44-25, with 5:08 before half.
Puerto Rico chipped away at the U.S. lead and got within 13 points, but Graham Brown completed a three-point play after being fouled inside and the U.S. retired to the locker room holding a 51-35 advantage. Pittsnogle finished the first half scoring 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting from three.
"It was a great game," said Pittsnogle. "Our main goal was to come out and stop their transition and to try and shut down their point guard a little bit. We played with a lot of intensity today. We had a couple of players hurt so we had to step it up a little bit and that's what we did.
"I thought that everybody gets their turn and it was my turn to step up and play even though it was the last game," remarked Pittsnogle about what he thought after learning earlier in the afternoon that he would start. "I knew I had to step my game my game up so we could become 7-1 and I went out there and tried to play my best. Once I felt my shot going I just kept it going and coach kept running plays for me and the guys got me the ball and I was shooting it and making it."
"For a guy to sit on the bench for as long as he sat there and not get major minutes, to come in an step in for Paul Davis who went down with the shoulder injury, I think he showed a lot of character and a lot of growth as a player on the trip over here," stated Kent about Pittsnogle's performance.
While Pittsnogle led the USA scoring with 17 points, Graham Brown finished with 12 points and nine rebounds, Williams recorded 12 points and six assists, and Hollins added nine points and a team high 10 boards.
The USA shot just 36.1 percent overall and still won. Forcing Puerto Rico into 27 turnovers and 45.2 percent shooting from the field, the United States controlled the boards and out rebounded Puerto Rico 52 to 43, grabbing 21 offensive boards.
In other results from finals action Sunday, Slovenia (3-5) fought off Turkey (4-4) 67-63 to claim seventh place, Venezuela (6-2) held on to defeat Argentina (5-3) 78-76 in the game to decide ninth place, and Nigeria (4-4) ended on a positive beating South Korea (2-6) 99-70.