After allowing Cuba (0-6) to score 28 points in the first quarter, the USA (5-1) defense dug in and limited the hosts to just 18 points over the next two quarters to pave the way to a 93-62 win in the final first round FIBA Americas World Cup Qualifying game Sunday evening in Havana, Cuba.
The game marked the first time the United States men’s national team had played in Cuba since the 1991 Pan American Games.
Claiming first place in Group C, the USA now advances into the Americas World Cup Qualifying second round as the top-seeded team out of Group C.
“We knew Cuba was really big and athletic, and we had trouble with that in the first quarter,” said USA head coach Jeff Van Gundy. “And then after that I thought our defense was outstanding over the last three quarters, and we really shot the ball well from 3.
“The last three quarters we were outstanding defensively, swarming, they had a size advantage and we overcame that with speed and intensity and passion, and they bounced back well from a rough game in Mexico and a rough start tonight.”
After a back-and forth first quarter, the USA trailed 28-24 at the end of the first period after Cuba finished the opening stanza with an 8-0 run.
Back-to-back 3-pointers from Hearn and Caruso gave the U.S. a lead it would never relinquish and ignited a game-deciding 17-0 run that pushed the USA ahead 41-28 with 5:12 to play in the first half.
Outscoring Cuba 20-9 in the second quarter and allowing Cuba just one made field goal and one 3-pointer, the U.S. led 50-37 heading into the midway break.
“We think our athleticism and our length on the defensive end are very helpful to us and we’re a big collection of players that haven’t played together a lot. So, on offense it can sometimes be a little clunky. But we know we can defend, so that has to be our strength,” said Reggie Hearn (Grand Rapids Drive), who made 4-of-6 3-point shots.
Continuing its defensive dominance, the USA outscored Cuba 24-9 in the third quarter and led 74-46 with one quarter to play. Outproducing Cuba 19-16 in the fourth, the Americans sealed the 93-62 victory.
Six USA players scored in double digits. Hearn and Xavier Munford (Wisconsin Herd) tied as the USA’s leading scorers with 16 points. David Stockton (Stockton Kings) checked in for 13 points, Alex Caruso (Los Angeles Lakers) notched 11, and Trey McKinney Jones (Fort Wayne Mad Ants) and Marcus Thornton (Canton Charge) chipped in 10 points apiece.
Outrebounding the bigger Cuba team 43-35, the USA’s effort on the glass was led by Amile Jefferson (Iowa Wolves), Munford, McKinney Jones and Rashawn Thomas (Oklahoma City Blue), who each pulled down five boards.
The USA hit an even 50.0 percent (32-64 FGs) of its shots from the field, including a red-hot 51.7 percent (15-29 3pt FGs) from 3-point range, while limiting Cuba to just 33.3 percent (20-60 FGs) shooting overall and 21.2 percent (5-23 3pt FGs) from beyond the arc.
“It came down to defense and just talking,” McKinney Jones said. “A lot of defense is just communicating with each other so everybody is on the same page. Obviously in the first quarter we gave up too many points, we were on pace to give them over 100, so I think we did a good job of taking their confidence away. If you give teams like these confidence, that’s where it can be dangerous. So it started with the communication and then it went from there.
NBA G League Erie Bayhawks head coach Josh Longstaff and former Georgetown University coach John Thompson III served as USA assistant coaches. The USA teams during the three first-round windows primarily were comprised of NBA G League athletes.
In other action Sunday, Puerto Rico (4-2) finished off Group C first-round play with a 84-79 victory over Mexico (3-3). In Group A’s final first round games, Argentina (5-1) claimed first after disposing of Uruguay (4-2) 102-58, and Panama (2-3) meets winless Paraguay (0-5) in Sunday’s final game, but is assured earning third place in Group C.
First-round play concludes Monday for Groups B and D. In Group B play, Brazil (4-1) will meet Colombia (1-4). Group D’s final games see Canada (4-1) facing U.S. Virgin Islands (2-3), while Dominican Republic (4-1) plays Bahamas (0-5).
Following completion of the first round, the top three finishing teams in each of the four, first-round groups advanced with their overall records to the second round. The three advancing teams from Group A, Argentina, Uruguay and Panama, and the top three finishers from Group C, USA, Puerto Rico and Mexico, will form Group E. The top three finishers from Group B, and Group D will form Group F. The three second-round windows of competition will take place Sept. 13-17, 2018; Nov. 29-Dec. 3, 2018; and Feb. 21-25, 2019.
Following completion of the Americas second-round games, seven teams will qualify out of the zone for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, including the top three finishing teams from second-round Group E and in Group F, and the best fourth placed team between Group E and Group F.
Under FIBA’s new competition system, a total of 80 national teams from FIBA’s four regions of Africa, Americas, Asia (which now includes Oceania) and Europe are competing in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Qualifiers over 15 months looking to earn a qualifying berth in the 32-team 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup competition that will be held Aug. 31-Sept. 15 in China.