HERAKLION, Crete, Greece – USA guard Jalen Brunson (Stevenson H.S./Lincolnshire, Ill.) scored a game-high 30 points, and the USA U19 World Championship Team made the big plays when needed Saturday night as the U.S. improved to 6-0 and advanced to the FIBA U19 World Championship gold medal game on Sunday after out-battling host Greece (5-1) 82-76 in Heraklion, Greece.
The USA, looking to earn a second-consecutive world title after winning gold in 2013, will play 5-1 Croatia Sunday at 1:30 p.m. EDT.
The USA and Croatia played in a Group A preliminary round play on June 28, and the USA sailed to a 103-81 win. Croatia’s path to the championship game was capped by a 91-56 demolishing of Turkey (5-1) in the night’s other medal round semifinal. The gold medal game will be televised live on ESPNU (1:30 p.m. EDT).
“Croatia is big and strong and they’re going to be ready to go,” said USA and University of Arizona coach Sean Miller. “We respect them a great deal. We’ve played against them, and we have to be ready to go. We didn’t win anything tonight. We just gave ourselves the opportunity to.”
In earning the victory, the USA shot 48.3 percent from the field and made 6-of-16 3-point shots. The USA again controlled the glass, outrebounding Greece 44-33. Greece shot a cool 41.4 percent for the game, but made 10-of-25 3-pointers. Greece committed 19 turnovers, while the USA recorded 22.
“That was as hostile of an arena as I’ve ever been in, and I’ve certainly been in my fair share," Miller said. "It’s a great credit to our young players and team for them to hang in there, be resilient, and find a way to win this type of game.
Brunson’s 30-point performance were the fourth-most points by a U.S. player in U19 competition history, making 9-of-13 from the field overall, 2-of-5 from 3-point, and 10-of-12 from the foul line. Brunson also recorded four assists in 31 minutes of action.
“It’s always been there, but I’m getting a lot more confidence and more aggressive,” remarked Brunson about his 3-point shooting. “The coaches have been saying that I really need to stay aggressive in order for our team to win.”
Harry Giles (Wesleyan Christian Academy/Winston-Salem, N.C.) finished with his fourth-straight double-double, recording 13 points and 11 rebounds. Terrance Ferguson (Homeschooled/ Dallas, Texas) and Jayson Tatum (Chaminade College Prep/St. Louis, Mo.) each added 11 points, and Josh Jackson (Prolific Prep, Calif./Southfield, Mich.) contributed seven points.
“It was probably one of the greatest experiences of my life by far,” said Brunson. “That was the most intense arena I’ve ever played in. Even though we were wearing white, it was an away game. It’s something I know I’m never going to forget. We didn’t play great; I know we can get better. It was a great win for us.”
“That was a crazy game,” said Tatum. “That was the biggest atmosphere I’ve played in since I’ve been playing ball. You know it was crazy, 10,000 people against you; you’re on the road; but everybody sacrificed and just gave it their all. I’m just so happy we got the win."
Played in front of a sold-out and raucous Greek crowd, neither team was able to break away from the other. The biggest U.S. lead was 10 several times, and was five for Greece in the first period.
Trailing 10-5, the U.S. outscored Greece 12-2 to finish off the first stanza and grab a 17-12 lead. The Americans led 37-27 with 1:13 to play after a dunk by Caleb Swanigan (Homestead H.S./Fort Wayne, Ind.), but Greece scored on the following possession.
Tyler Dorsey, a 6-foot-4 guard from Maranatha High School in California who plays for Greece, was fouled at the second quarter buzzer. After completing the three-point play with a free throw, the USA retired to the locker room leading 37-32.
After three quarters, the USA lead stood at 57-53, but only after Greece again narrowly beat the buzzer at the end of the quarter with a deep 3.
With its crowd roaring, Greece rallied to cut the USA lead to three points, 69-66, with 3:34 left in the game.
Ferguson quieted them some when he drained his third and final 3 with 3:22 remaining to give the USA a 72-66 lead and a some needed breathing room. Following a missed 3 by Greece, Brunson was fouled and poked in the eye. Despite his blurry vision, Brunson sank both charity tries, and the U.S. lead was upped to 74-66 with 2:27 left.
“Just concentration,” responded Brunson when asked how he managed to make both free throws. “I was seeing a little bit of double. So I tried to close my eye; just really concentrate; and then I just used the right follow-through; get myself right, and they went in.”
Dorsey sank a 3 for Greece and was fouled on the make, but he missed his free throw to leave to the score 74-69 with 1:39 remaining. Tatum delivered the knockout combination for the USA when he scored the next five points to help the USA build a 79-69 lead with 54 seconds left.
“Jayson Tatum’s offensive rebound above the rim and put-back stands out for me," Miller said. "Josh Jackson’s great defensive rebound late in the game. Obviously, Harry Giles made big plays throughout.
Terrence Ferguson answered with a couple great 3s and Jalen Brunson had 30 points. Boy, he really shot the ball well. He’s our leader. He’s come so far since we left Colorado Springs.
"He’s had an incredible tournament, and we wouldn’t be where we’re at without him, that’s for sure. It was a team win, and at this level with what we’re trying to accomplish that’s what we need.”