HERAKLION, Crete, Greece – Following 40 competitive minutes during which neither the USA (7-0) or Croatia (5-2) could pull away, the USA rolled in the five minutes of overtime and outscored upset-minded Croatia 12-4 to earn a hard-fought 79-71 win in the 2015 FIBA U19 World Championship gold medal game Sunday night in Heraklion, Greece.
It was a second consecutive FIBA U19 world title for the Americans, who also won the event in 2013.
“No question, we had to fight through miscues,” said USA and University of Arizona coach Sean Miller.“Really I thought we probably shot more inside shots than we did the entire tournament, but they didn’t fall.
"To our team’s credit, we stayed with it, we persevered, we got defensive stops and I thought our effort level in overtime really reflects a lot about the character of our team. We were at our best when it mattered the most.
“It’s an incredible experience. First of all you’re representing the USA and we all know what that means. But you also represent everybody in the USA in terms of basketball – coaches, players alike.
"So you have great responsibility, a lot of pressure on your shoulders to deliver. I’m really happy for our staff. We worked hard together for 23 days and our players and everybody associated with it – job well done and we feel good. We’re headed home now with the gold."
Jalen Brunson (Stevenson H.S./ Lincolnshire, Ill.), who finished the seven game championship averaging 14.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and team-highs of 5.6 assists and 2.1 steals a game, was named the Most Valuable Player of the FIBA U19 World Championship.
“I’m speechless,” admitted Brunson. “I’ve got to give credit to my teammates. They found me the right positions to just make plays. I just can’t thank everybody enough. We worked so hard for this.”
Joining Brunson on the five-member All-Tournament Team was the USA’s Harry Giles (Wesleyan Christian Academy/Winston-Salem, N.C.), who averaged during the tournament a double-double of 14.0 points and 10.6 rebounds a game.
“Jalen had a great tournament," Miller said. “He emerged as our leader as well, and when you have a leader at that position it helps things. I thought his performance against Greece with 30 points was an incredible performance. Down the home stretch of today’s game he stepped up big.”
Ten USA players contributed points in the gold medal victory, and Brunson, who finished with a team-high seven assists, while not committing a turnover, scored all 14 points of his U.S.-high in the second half and overtime.
Giles contributed his fifth-consecutive double-double, finishing with 13 points and 16 rebounds.Jayson Tatum (Chaminade College Prep/St. Louis, Mo.) added 13 points and six rebounds; and Josh Jackson(Prolific Prep, Calif./Southfield, Mich.) added 10 points and eight rebounds.
The USA owned a narrow 15-13 lead after the first quarter, and was ahead 34-31 at halftime.
The Americans looked on the verge of blowing the game open when they started the third quarter with a 13-6 scoring run that increased the U.S. advantage to 47-37 4:18 left in the third quarter.
Getting six points from the foul line, Croatia rallied and reeled off eight consecutive points to close the gap to 47-45. Brunson stopped the run with a 3, but Croatia scored the last hoop of the period, and heading into the fourth quarter the USA led 50-47.
The two teams traded baskets for most of the final 10 minutes and there were several tied scores and and lead changes.
With the USA trailing 61-60, Jackson made his second 3-pointer of the game to push the U.S. ahead 63-61. Croatia’s Luka Bozic countered with a 3 of his own to regain the lead for Croatia, 64-63, and Brunson connected on a short jumper to give the USA a 65-64 lead with 1:38 left.
Jackson found Giles inside for a basket, and the USA’s lead was three, 67-64 with 51 seconds showing on the clock.
Croatia scored to cut the lead to one, 67-66, with 47 second to go, and following a U.S. miss with 25 seconds remaining, Croatia worked for a final shot and appeared on the verge of pulling the upset when Bozic was fouled with 4.3 seconds left in the game.
Bozic made his first free throw to even the score 67 all, but missed his second try and the USA came up with the rebound but missed a deep 3 to force overtime.
Brunson got the USA offense going in overtime with a fast-break layup, and after Tatum scored with 3:41 left in OT, the USA had a 71-67 lead.
Croatia’s scoring troubles in overtime continued, and meanwhile, the USA got two points from Chinanu Onauku (Louisville/Lanham, Md.) and Giles, and Brunson added four more as the USA outscored Croatia 12-4 in overtime to take the 79-71 decision.
“Croatia is a great team,” said Allonzo Trier (Findlay Prep, Nev./Seattle, Wash.). “We had already played them earlier in pool play, but it’s really tough to beat the same team twice.
"We knew coming into this (game) that it was going to be a battle. They were playing better basketball towards the end of this tournament and we expect a dogfight, and we’re proud of our efforts and coming out on top.”