By Wayne Bumpass - It's been a long journey for the USA men's U19 basketball team during the FIBA World Championship, and even longer since the age group won gold. Two years ago USA didn't even medal, but today's 82-66 win over Serbia marks the third gold medal in the past 27 years for the U19 age group and fifth overall. USA went undefeated during their amazing run, becoming the sixth team to win gold without a loss, joining previous USA squads from 1979, 1991 and 2009, Yugoslavia in 1987 and Greece in 1995. Today's matchup with Serbia also marked the second time the two teams have met for gold and six years ago Serbia defeated USA 74-69. That team included NBA players Stephen Curry, Johnny Flynn, Michael Beasley and DeAndre Jordan. Today's loss for Serbia gives them their second straight silver medal, also finished second two years ago.
Entering today's game Serbia and USA were the top two defensive teams at the FIBA U19 World Championship. The U.S. were limiting opponents to 54.9 points per gam and Serbia 55.9. In the semifinals Serbia beat Australia 63-58, Aussie's coveted rising high school senior, Dante Exum, had a chance to tie the game with under twenty seconds remaining, but he missed both free throws and Serbia iced the game from the line. In USA's semifinal 100-60 win, the game was over minutes into the first quarter as the U.S. pressing defense was too much for Lithuania. Oklahoma State rising sophomore guard Marcus Smart scored a game-high 18 points and Washington freshman Nigel Williams-Goss had a game-high 5 assists. Duke targets, Justise Winslow (ranked #17 by 247sports) and Jahlil Okafor (ranked #2 in the 2014 class by 247sports) are the two youngest players for USA, but they are both highly skilled and competitive. Winslow finished with 15 points, 2 assists and a game-high 9 rebounds in the semifinal victory, while Okafor added 6 points (3-4), 2 rebounds and 2 assists. Duke rising sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon went scoreless, but he only took three shots and grabbed three rebounds. Against Canada in the quarterfinals, Sulaimon led the team in assists and finished with 3 points and 2 rebounds.
From the start of today's gold medal game, the U.S. plan of attack was to pound it inside against the Serbian big men. Serbia got off to a quick 7-2 lead, but Sulaimon helped keep the young American's in it by nailing a three pointer and scoring off an Elfrid Peyton pass to tie it up at 9. He finished the first half as the only player in double figures with 10 points and the U.S. owned a 40-38 lead at the half. The game remained tight in the second half, due in large part to Serbia's three point shooting and the USA entered the 4th quarter up 57-51. Midway through the fourth quarter though, the U.S. finally got some breathing room in route to their 16 point victory following a series of steals and winning the battle for 50/50 balls. Payton finished with 9 points, a game high 5 steals and a team high 6 assists. Okafor added 6 points and 4 rebounds, while Aaron Gordon finished with 6 points and a team-high 6 rebounds. Williams-Goss had 15 points, Sulaimon finished with 12 points, Montrezl Harrel led the team in scoring with 17 points and he also added a game-high 4 blocks. Winslow fouled out with 5:43 remaining in the game and didn't see much time on the court because he was in foul trouble the entire game.
Suliamon averaged 9.6 points and 2.8 rebounds, and he had his best game of the World Championship in the first meeting between Serbia and the U.S., when he scored 15 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and had 3 steals during the 71-62 win. Okafor averaged 10.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and only missed 14 shots throughout the nine FIBA games. Like Sulaimon, the coveted big man's highest scoring game also came in the first meeting with Serbia. He scored 16 points, but his best game came against Canada in the quarterfinals. The rising high school senior finished with 12 points (5-5), a team-high 8 rebounds and a block. Winslow averaged 9.8 points, 6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game, despite going scoreless and only accumulating a steal and rebound in the gold medal game. His best game was in the Semifinals against Lithuania when he finished with 15 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists.
Lithuania took home the bronze medal after beating Australia 106-100 in overtime, Exum finished with 28 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in the loss. The 2013 FIBA U19 All-Tournament Team was Vasilije Micic, Dante Exum, Dario Saric, Aaron Gordon and Jahlil Okafor. Gordon was also named tourney MVP.