MANILA, Philippines—Losing a game at the Basketball World Cup, the U.S. national team said, was quite the wake-up call. It brought a renewed focus, an extra level of commitment, and even some promises to one another that things would change.
The Americans turned words into actions and handed the Italians their worst loss in a global tournament—the World Cup or the Olympics—in nearly 55 years. Mikal Bridges scored 24 points, Tyrese Haliburton added 18 on six 3-pointers and the U.S. simply was airtight defensively on the way to a 100–63 win in the World Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday night.
“It’s been a five-week journey for this group and there’s five more days. That’s how we look at it,” U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “We’re the horse turning back to the barn. The horse starts picking up pace when it’s near the barn, and that’s what’s happening right now. Our guys are sensing this is the end of the journey and the energy picked up tonight, the pace, the force. They know what’s ahead. They know what the goal is.”
Gold is the goal, and the Americans can reach the gold-medal game if they win Friday in a semifinal against either Germany or Latvia; those teams meet Wednesday in a quarterfinal. The medal games are Sunday.
The last time Italy lost a game this badly in a tournament of this level was Oct. 14, 1968—USA 100, Italy 61 in the Mexico City Olympics. The Italians shot 31 percent on Tuesday and were just 7 of 38 (18 percent) from 3-point range.
Let that show the level of improvement from the U.S.: Lithuania started 9 for 9 on 3s in what became a stunning victory over the Americans on Sunday. Italy didn’t make nine 3s in the entire game Tuesday.
“We just felt that energy from the jump,” Bridges said. “Everybody felt it.”
It was 46–24 USA by halftime, with Austin Reaves providing the exclamation point courtesy of a follow-slam that had his teammates out of their seats. The margin was that big despite Anthony Edwards—the team’s leading scorer entering Tuesday, averaging just over 20 points in the first five games of the World Cup—not even getting on the scoresheet until the first possession of the third quarter.
His heroics weren’t needed. Not much on the offensive end was. The defensive effort—which was shredded for 110 points in a six-point loss to Lithuania—sure seemed like the best of the summer from the Americans.
“Everything stayed the same,” U.S. point guard Jalen Brunson said. “It’s just, our approach had to be a little better.”
Reaves finished with 12 for the Americans, who improved to 10–1 overall this summer. Simone Fontecchio led Italy (4–2) with 18 points.
“They played very good basketball,” Italian forward Luigi Datome said. “They created very good shots and they made them.”
It was the quarterfinal round where it all went wrong for the U.S. at the World Cup four years ago in China. A loss to France in the Round of 8 eliminated the Americans from medal contention and started a free-fall all the way to seventh place, the worst finish ever by a U.S. team in a major men’s international event.
That won’t happen this time. And now the formula is clear: lock in on defense, go-go-go on offense, and dare opponents to win by playing the Americans’ preferred way.
“Any time you can create a tough shot, rebound and go, it’s going to make our offense so much better,” Reaves said.