BEIJING (Reuters) – France caused the biggest shock of the basketball World Cup in China after beating holders the United States 89-79 to reach the semi-finals of the 32-nation tournament on Wednesday.
France will meet Argentina on Friday for a berth in Sunday’s final while 2006 champions Spain take on Australia, who overpowered Czech Republic 82-70 in the day’s other quarter-final.
The United States, favourites to win their third successive and sixth overall world title, dropped into the 5-8th place playoffs after they failed to reach the medal rounds for the first time since the 2002 tournament in Indianapolis.
The Americans were beaten in a last-eight clash by the former Yugoslavia in that tournament and they next face Serbia, who were billed as their most likely rival in a gold-medal clash in this year’s event.
With 17 of their top NBA players pulling out of the roster in the build-up to the tournament in China, the U.S. lacked depth but their coach Gregg Popovich, the winner of five NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs, refused to make excuses.
“It is a disrespectful notion to even bring something like that up,” Popovich told a news conference.
“To say ‘hey you guys didn’t have this guy or that guy,’ that’s disrespectful to France or whoever else is in the tournament. France beat us.
“It doesn’t matter who is on the team. I couldn’t be more proud of these 12 guys who sacrificed their summer having never played together before.
“They put themselves in the arena and competed. They deserve credit for that just like France deserve credit for winning. It’s not about ‘the United States didn’t have their other guys.’ There is no such thing as ‘other guys.'”
Having ground out a barely deserved 93-92 overtime win over Turkey in the preliminary group stage, there was to be no escape for the U.S. this time against an athletic French side who dominated them in every department.
An aggressive French defence forced a flurry of first-half turnovers and having engineered a 45-39 halftime lead, they surged 51-41 ahead early in the third quarter thanks to inspired performances from Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert.
As the duo began to tire, Team USA hit back thanks to a one-man show from Donovan Mitchell, who netted 14 of his 29 points in the third quarter to give the 2014 champions a 66-63 lead ahead of the final 10 minutes.
But Mitchell stayed scoreless in the fourth quarter while his Utah Jazz team mate Gobert and Orlando Magic guard Fournier hit top gear.
Trailing 72-65, France went on a 17-4 run and cool free-throw shooting in the last 90 seconds of the clash gave them a memorable win as Gobert finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds while Fournier netted 22 points.
The towering Gobert also produced two crucial blocks in the final minute as the Americans lost their momentum and threw away several key possessions.
The only positive they will take from the tournament is that they have qualified for next year’s Olympics in Tokyo alongside Australia, Argentina, Spain, France, Iran and Nigeria.
Japan gained an automatic berth as hosts and four other nations will complete the 12-team field after next year’s qualifying tournaments.
The impressive Australians, who have never won a major medal, lived up to the billing of dark horses after a mature performance gave them a sixth successive win in the tournament.
The Czechs fought hard throughout to stay in touch but were undone by another fine display from Australia’s Spurs guard Patty Mills, who racked up 24 points.
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Christian Radnedge)