Team USA survives tough test from Montenegro

Team USA survives tough test from Montenegro

MANILA, Philippines — Team USA got is first test of the FIBA World Cup Friday. They passed but it was a little shaky.

Montenegro, loaded with size and playing with confidence, led at the halftime and refused to let the Americans get separation throughout the second half until pulling away late in the fourth. Team USA ultimately won it, 85-73, on the back of strong play from guards Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton and Austin Reaves.

Edwards scored all 17 of his points in the second half as he sensed the moment and showed off his array of skill from jumpers to drives to getting to the foul line. Haliburton was a star at both ends as he had 10 points, 6 assists and two steals.

The victory puts Team USA in very strong position to advance to the quarterfinals next week. But it underscored that challenge forthcoming, first Sunday against a strong Lithuania team and then potentially onward as the level of competition increases.

Team USA’s weakness is unquestionably its size, that has been clear since the team was assembled. Montenegro is a classic Eastern European FIBA team, big and tough complete with a star big, Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic.

Right from the start Montenegro started using its edge, pounding the ball into the middle and attacking the offensive boards. They had a 11-rebound advantage by the time the first quarter was over, serving notice they were serious.

In all, the Montenegrans won the rebounding battle, 48-31 and 22 of them were on the offensive end. Not only did this give them a possession advantage that is vital in an upset bid, but it slowed the U.S. down. This is job one in any attempt to beat Team USA in this tournament.

Vucevic, who signed a three-year, $60 million deal in Chicago last month, played the role often seen against the U.S., an NBA star who brings everything in a moment of national pride. He shoved around his peers from the NBA, fighting for rebounds and showing off the touch that has made him a two-time All-Star.

He finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds and handed out quite a few bruises to Jaren Jackson Jr., Bobby Portis and anyone else who battled with him inside. Jackson, who was in foul trouble early in the game, was not credited with a rebound and no one on the U.S. team had more than 5.

The U.S. was 1-of-9 from 3-point range in the first half and just 5-of-17 for the game. They also missed 10 free throws and turned the ball over 12 times. All of these are ingredients in getting beat at the World Cup.

But Reaves drilled a clutch 3-pointer with 2:44 left that finally gave the Americans breathing room. He finished with 12 points off the bench.

American-born Kendrick Perry had 14 points for Montenegro.

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