"Chris Paul was phenomenal," said USA and University of Oklahoma head coach Kelvin Sampson. "I know Justin Gray was the (organizing committee's USA) Player of the Game. Justin's a very good player and made his shots, but Chris Paul had 13 assists and only one turnover. We kept running plays for Chris. Not necessarily for him to score, but for him to make a decision. He's an unbelievable point guard. He was the difference in the game for us tonight. Several of the guys played their best basketball tonight. (David) Padgett played his best basketball for us tonight. Curtis Withers' second half was really good. We're coming together. We're becoming a good team and that's encouraging."
"Coach has been telling me, Bracey (Wright) and Adam (Morrison) to take good shots and eventually they'll start going in," said Gray. "It's just all confidence. It takes time. I guess it took me a little longer to get going, but I felt good today. Chris (Paul), that's the guy who found me when I was open so I have to give him credit for that."
Defending champions at this event, Argentina (3-0) remained undefeated after cruising past Canada (2-1) 76-70, while Brazil (1-2) earned its first victory after vanquishing Venezuela (0-3) 76-68 and the Bahamas (1-2) finished off the Dominican Republic (0-3) 82-79.
With the win, the U.S. advances to the semifinals as the top seed in Group B and will face Canada, which finished second in Group A, at 8:00 p.m. on July 31. The first semifinal, featuring Group A No. 1 finisher Argentina and Puerto Rico, the No. 2 team in Group B, will tip-off at 6:00 p.m. The gold medal game will be contested at 8:00 p.m. on Aug. 1, preceded by the 6:00 p.m. bronze medal contest. The top three finishing teams at this tournament qualify for the 2005 FIBA World Championship For Young Men. However, because Argentina earns an automatic berth as host country of next summer's event, all four nations in the semifinals are assured of advancing to the 2005 Young Men's Worlds.
"We're getting better, we were better tonight than we were last night," said Sampson. "That's the important thing in this tournament, you have to keep getting better. The next two games will be tough opponents."
May got things started on a short jumper at 9:29 and after a pair of possessions on each end, Puerto Rico got on the board at 8:33 with a dunk by recently signed Washington Wizards center Peter Ramos. Neither team could get anything going after that, combining for four turnovers and three missed shots. Gray hit his first trey of the game off a Paul feed at 7:14. That spurred a 7-0 spurt for the USA, which saw Paul collect a pair of assists, while May scored four points and the U.S. was up 9-2 at 6:19.
The islanders made their next three shots to pull to 11-8 at 5:07. May made good on a traditional three-point play, which was followed by a Ramos bucket and at 4:19 showing on the clock the United States held a 14-10 edge. The USA's defense held Puerto Rico scoreless for the next 3:19 and by the end of the first quarter the USA held a 21-14 lead.
The islanders used a 9-0 run that began in the final minute of the first quarter and ended at 9:07 in the second to claw back to within two, 21-19. By 7:04 the scoreboard still showed the United States holding a slim 25-23 margin. However, the U.S. started running as Gray nailed a three on a fast-break at 6:55. Morrison followed with two more threes over the next 53 seconds, both of which came from the same spot on the right side and were fed by Paul. On his second trey, Morrison was sent to the line for the bonus and made the rare four-point play, giving the United States a 35-23 cushion with 6:02 remaining in the half. By the midway buzzer the North Americans had upped their lead to 48-32.
Gray and Paul were key for the U.S. in the first half as Gray scored 15 points and Paul fed his teammates 10 assists during that span.
The United States went up by as many as 21 points, 65-44 at 3:33 in the third period and closed the stanza ahead 73-57. Using up the shot clock as much as possible in the fourth quarter, the U.S. came away with the victory.
"Puerto Rico is a hard team to play against because their point guard dominates the ball, creates (plays) so well," added Sampson. "We did a great job on the boards in the second half, 10 offensive rebounds, and we got going."
While Gray was credited with 20 points, three assists and four steals, Paul finished with eight points and 13 steals. Additionally, Curtis Withers (Charlotte / Charlotte, N.C.) nearly had a double-double with eight points and 11 rebounds, and David Padgett (Louisville / Reno, Nev.), who was whistled for his fourth foul with 45 seconds remaining in the first half and sat out most of the second, collected five points and six rebounds.
The United States held Puerto Rico to 39.4 (28-71 FGs) percent from the field and a frigid 22.2 (4-18 3pt FGs) percent from beyond the arc. By contrast, in its first two games, the islanders shot 43.5 (64-147 FGs) percent from the floor and a whopping 44.0 (22-50 3pt FGs) percent from 3-point. The United States, which connected on 4-of-17 (.353) of its shots from afar, outrebounded Puerto Rico 41-37 and forced 14 turnovers, while giving up the ball just seven times.
"I thought we did a pretty good job on the glass, especially on the defensive end," said Padgett. "I thought we controlled that pretty well. We limited them for the most part on their threes, but we came out focused and ready. That was the big part."
Jose Barea and Ramos scored 25 and 23 points, respectively, for their squad.