In a dominating performance from start to finish, the USA behind 22 points from Jayson Tatum (Chaminade College Prep/St. Louis, Mo.), manhandled Croatia (1-1) 103-81 Sunday evening to improve to 2-0 and position itself to earn Preliminary Round Group A’s No. 1 seed for the Round of 16 at the FIBA U19 World Championship in Heraklion, Greece.
Following a day off Monday for all 16 teams, preliminary round play will conclude Tuesday and the U.S. will face Egypt (9:00 a.m. EDT).
Five USA players scored in double figures Sunday evening to help lead the USA’s offensive onslaught. While Tatum made 10-of-15 shots to tally his game high 22 points, Josh Jackson (Prolific Prep, Calif./ Southfield, Mich.) recorded a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds; Allonzo Trier (Findlay Prep, Nev./Seattle, Wash.) also accounted for 17 points.
Harry Giles (Wesleyan Christian Academy/Winston-Salem, N.C.) tossed in 14 points; and Jalen Brunson (Stevenson H.S./Lincolnshire, Ill.) accounted for 10 points and a game best eight assists without committing a turnover.
“No question tonight here against Croatia was our best performance,” said USA and University of Arizona head mentor Sean Miller. “Our offense is really settling in. We were able to get really quality shots against a team that I think does a good job defensively.
“We utilized our press to force turnovers, which coming into the tournament we knew that we had to pressure teams, that we had to be able to force turnovers. The fact that we were able to turn them over was a good sign for us.”
In a game featuring two expected U19 medal contenders, the USA men led for all but 10 seconds as the Americans’ depth and constant pressure defense proved too much for Croatia.
“We were really focused coming in here tonight,” stated Trier. “We really respected Croatia as an opponent. We knew what they could do and tried to take away their strengths and really play our type of basketball.
“I came in right away and was really aggressive. I attacked the basket, made some 3s to help open the floor up, and just made plays for my teammates and tried to ignite us in the press,” added the 6-foot-7 Jackson.
With Brunson contributing four points, the U.S. grabbed an 8-3 lead just 1:59 into the contest.
Assembling a 14-4 run to expand a 9-6 lead into a 23-12 advantage, the U.S. had six different players score in the run and received four points from Thomas Welsh (UCLA/Redondo Beach, Calif.) and Tatum.
The U.S. owned a 21-12 lead at the end of the first stanza after Croatia hit a 3 at the buzzer to end the quarter, and Croatia chipped the U.S. lead down to 33-28 with 8:15 to go before half. The U.S. upped the tempo and went on a 13-4 run to push its lead to 46-32 with 5:40 remaining in quarter two.
Croatia rallied once again and cut the lead to nine, 46-37, but the Americans again exerted control and outscored Croatia 12-2 over the second quarter’s last 2:24 to take a 58-39 lead into the locker room.
The USA’s lead never fell below 18 points in the third quarter, and although Croatia cut the gap to 15 several times in the fourth period, the outcome was not in doubt as the USA sailed in for the 103-81 win.
"Jayson Tatum, that was his best performance to date,” responded Sean Miller when asked which of his players impressed him in the win. “He’s one of the young players we’re talking about who’s focused, working very hard, and I think in a far better place as a player right now then he would have been a week ago
The USA shot 52.4 percent for the game, and while it was outrebounded by one, 42-41, the Americans outscored Croatia 24-2 off of turnovers and forced Croatia into 25 turnovers for the night. The U.S. bench also outscored Croatia 50-23.
“Our depth kills our opponents because it’s like we have two stating lineups,” said Giles. “We’ve got star players, big-time players on the bench like myself, Jason (Tatum), L.J. (Peak), Caleb (Swanigan), coming off the bench, so it’s tough for our opponents. The other teams might have depth, but they don’t have as much depth as we do.”
In other preliminary round play Sunday, in Group A, Egypt (1-1) edged Iran (0-2) 62-59; in Group B action, Turkey (2-0) defeated Spain (1-1) 72-65 and China (1-1) beat Argentina (0-2) 74-67. In Group C games, Italy (2-0) slipped past Australia (0-2) 69-67, while Canada (2-0) pounded Tunisia (0-2) 93-36; and in Group D, host Greece (2-0) nipped Dominican Republic (0-2) 70-65, and Serbia (2-0) whipped South Korea (0-2) 113-83.
Following completion of the preliminary round, all 16 teams advance to the round of 16 that will be played on July 1. The winners advance to the medal-round quarterfinals on July 3, while the round of 16 losers will compete out for 9th-16th places. The semifinals are on July 4, and the finals are on July 5.