By Jake Appleman/@JakeAppleman
“It’s a great day to be an American–a Polish American,” Coach Krystkowiak muses at the end of practice, as Team USA comes together in the center of the dingy alternate gymnasium where “no dunking” signs are taped on to the backboards.
His words and the schedule conjure up memories of Team USA’s epic buzzer-beating victory over Spain in the quarters two years ago, one of the best basketball games–on any level–that I’ve ever witnessed live. After Alberto Jodar bricked two free throws with Spain up 1, Florida’s Erving Walker coasted on the Spaniards, leaving Kansas’ Travis Releford open and with nothing to complain about, but only because the shot went down.
This experience fresh in mind, it was strange knowing that Spain had cruised out of the first stage, save a tough win against Australia, and didn’t believe the Americans were very good–”ego-heavy shooters” is what our chaperon Martin relayed to the coaches and I.
It’s starts awfully, an open layup for Espana straight off the opening tip, but the pace is fast and the Americans–after some careless play with the ball and too much one-on-one stuff had them down 9-5–get back in gear, drawing fouls and putting Spain in the bonus early.
Spain is playing more cohesively (to be expected, they’ve been together for a year and a half) but Captain America, Royce Woolridge, is salvaging what remaining defensive dignity the Americans have with good active hands, solid positioning and well-timed close-outs. That’s right, it’s Day 5 and we’re focusing on close-outs. 21-19, Spain after one.
The U.S. comes out gangbusters in the second frame, outscoring the flopping tapas 14-4 in the first five minutes. If Ryan Boatright is steering the offensive ship, then Damien Leonard is his first mate for this extended sequence. Leonard’s full arsenal is on display: slithery forays to the tin, midrange pull-ups, and, of course, threes. While the kid has plenty to work on, he’s an absolute sniper from long range…think a pre-pubescent Allan Houston with a 36-inch vertical. 19 points in 19 minutes for DL, on 8-14 from the floor. Could have been more without the 4 silly fouls.
The second quarter, and first half in general, also sees the U.S. struggle to rotate while chasing shooters on the perimeter, leading to a lot of layups that Spain converts a split second before the American big can fully recover back to the challenge the drive. That said, Marshall Plumlee did a good job holding down the fort down low, with Michael Chandler providing a little lift as well.
The last minute before the half also saw the debut of Andrew White, one of the rotation’s odd men out. White is immediately part of the action, moving the ball up the floor in transition and dumping it into Plumlee who gets fouled. White comments on the bench that the experience has been great for him; going from being the man on his high school team to learning by watching. Here’s to hoping it sets him ahead in the future.
The third quarter sees the Americans give their five-point lead back in just under 3 minutes. By the time Spain has taken the lead, thanks to poor transition defense and shot selection, Coach Krystkowiak turns beet red during a timeout, showing real anger for the first time all tournament.
The kids get the message–on offense at least–and Kevin Ware comes alive, penetrating for buckets and recovering on defense for a block of a layup in transition.
Spain’s Jaime Fernandez catches fire, but the Americans weather the Spanish storm. Royce Woolridge buries two deep threes and the pendulum swings back to the Americans. This time, the squad that seems allergic to building a double-digit lead–anything up to 9 is kosher–maintains the edge. More Boatright, Leonard and Woolridge’s second back-breaking buzzer-beating three (the first a seemingly impossible step-back fadeaway) push it to 79-70. Boatright even scores four points on a potential five-point play, which is some straight reverse karma shit.
The Americans run clock and ram a 1/5 pick-and-roll down Spain’s throats near the end, Plumlee looking robotic with his wide base on screens and Boatright playing the role of speedy Chicago point guard that jackknifes into the lane all too well. The set creates good spacing and wears Spain down.
When Ware slices baseline for an uncontested two-handed throw down, it’s over, another victory for the team growing by the day, though you wouldn’t have known it if you wandered into the locker room afterward. Coach Krystkowiak harps on the inconsistent defensive effort; “poor shell defense” as he puts it. The team also didn’t play smart, according to their coach, but they did play together and hard, and it’s always a goal to do two of those three things.
“It was a lot of fun, cranking it up,” Krystkowiak notes in a moment of levity, although it should be noted that moments of levity were all the rage throughout the day; coach calling one of his bigs “Mister Happy Pants” during the film session and referring to other players–who dug this humor–simply as “dog.”
The kids probably won’t be able to crank it up quite like this against Australia tomorrow. The Aussies play like a rugby team. A win or a loss by a small margin will place Team U.S.A. out of the quarterfinal pool and into the single-elimination semifinals.
We can only hope. For now, at least, it’s great to be an American–a Polish American, an American cadet, an American journalist/writer…
Final: U.S. 91 Spain 79
Stats: Kevin Ware: 22 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 8 fouls drawn; Ryan Boatright: 19 points, 1 assist, 3 rebounds; Royce Woolridge: 17 points (4-7, from 3), 6 rebounds; Damian Leonard, 19 points (8-14 from the field); Marshall Plumlee 5 points (5-6, FTs) 10 rebounds
Team USA 24-32 at the line.