By Steve Keating
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Basketball superpower the United States will face Serbia on Sunday in an Olympic men’s basketball David and Goliath gold medal final that will bring down the curtain on the Rio Games.
It will mark the first appearance in the final as an independent nation for Olympic debutants Serbia, but the mighty Americans arrive at the gold medal contest riding a 24-game Olympic winning streak, looking to step on top of the podium for their third straight Summer Games.
“We’ve got one game,” said Team USA captain Carmelo Anthony. “That’s what we came here for and we don’t want to leave with anything less than the gold medal.”
With an Olympic record of 137-5 and having taken gold in 14 of the 17 Olympics in which they have participated there is no disputing the United States credentials.
However, Serbia also brings a considerable basketball pedigree to Sunday’s final.
Part of the former Yugoslavia, which also consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, Serbia beat the United States in the quarter-finals of the 2002 world championships on the way to the gold, and were beaten for a silver by the Americans at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Serbia also took the 2014 World Cup silver medal, having lost out on gold to the United States in the final.
More significantly, Serbia gave the unbeaten United States (7-0) their biggest scare in Rio, battling the Americans right down to the final buzzer in a Group A clash before falling TO 94-91.
“Serbia came within a whisker of beating us in our pool play so we absolutely respect them,” said Mike Krzyzewski, who will step down as head coach after Sunday’s game. “We know how good they are.
“They’ll be very, very difficult for us.”
The United States’ play has been marked by inconsistency.
After opening with blowout wins over China and Venezuela the Americans struggled with three tight wins to close out group play.
But they have looked more like the gold medal favorites they were tipped to be in the quarters crushing Argentina 105-78 then dismissing Spain 82-76 to clinch a return to the final.
With a lineup of NBA champions, All-Stars and most valuable players no team in the Olympic tournament can match the U.S. in pure skill including Serbia, who have relied on rapid ball movement, a tireless work rate and chemistry.
Serbia, however, was determined to put up a good fight.
“There two ways we can do this. We can play this game looking up to the United States or we can go out there and try to win it. It’s down to the players and I know they will leave it all out there,” Serbia’s team coach, Aleksandar Djordjevic told Serbian media in Rio.
(Additional reporting by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Nina Chestney)