MADRID — The dream of a Spain-USA final at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup is dead.
France ended it Wednesday with a stunning, 65-52 defeat of the Spain in the quarterfinals, playing a near perfect game to keep the hosts from even playing for a medal.
The USA’s chances to win its fourth straight international gold increased dramatically with Spain’s ouster. The Americans still have to get through Lithuania in the semifinals on Thursday and the winner of Serbia-France in the gold medal game on Sunday.
After a 2-3 performance in Group A, Serbia has played fantastically in the knockout rounds, beating 5-0 Greece and 5-1 Brazil by a total of 46 points to reach the semis. And if France continues to play the defense that it played on Wednesday, it can beat anybody.
But Spain was obviously the biggest threat to the USA’s winning streak, now at 43 games after Tuesday quarterfinal win over Slovenia. In fact, Spain looked like the World Cup favorites, with a full roster and a raucous home crowd behind them. Group A was the toughest pool in the tournament, as evidenced by its 4-0 record against Group B in the round of 16, and the hosts rolled through it, beating Brazil, France and Serbia by an average of 19.7 points.
On the other half of the bracket, Australia made a clear effort to avoid the U.S. until the semifinals and better its chance for a medal with who and how they played in their final pool-play contest. France had the opportunity to do the same with Spain, but played its final Group A game to win.
“We know, being third, we could cross with Spain in the quarterfinals,” France coach Vincent Collet said after his team’s win over Iran last week. “That’s basketball.”
Australia played to lose and then lost to Turkey in the round of 16. France played to win and pulled off the biggest upset that we’ve seen in a long time in international basketball. They simply outplayed Spain on both ends of the floor.
“For Spain, it was not that easy to play against us a second time,” Collet said afterward. “I think the big spread (24 points) of the first game was something important for us, because it was more motivation. We used it. We showed the players how bad we looked during the first game sometimes.”
The French players said they came in with a nothing-to-lose attitude and felt that all the pressure would be on Spain if the game was close down the stretch.
“It’s tough sometimes for a team to play at home,” Boris Diaw, who led France with 15 points, said. “I think we had the motivation to win and they had the motivation to not lose.”
But the pressure wouldn’t have been on the hosts’ shoulders down the stretch had France not played terrific defense. It started in transition, with France holding Spain to two measly fast break points.
In the half court, the Spanish guards mostly got nowhere on pick-and-rolls, as the French bigs hedged and then recovered quickly to their man. France’s rotations were sharp, keeping Spain from getting clean looks at the basket. As a result the hosts shot a brutal 2-for-22 from 3-point range.
Inside, the Spanish frontline of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka was neutralized by Diaw and France’s pair of young centers, Joffrey Lauvergne and Rudy Gobert, who both played the games of their lives.
Pau Gasol scored a game-high 17 points, but didn’t dominate like he had in earlier games. His brother and Ibaka both shot 1-for-7.
Lauvergne played the Gasols strong in the post, forcing them into tough shots away from the basket, and grabbed 10 rebounds in less than 17 minutes of action. Gobert outrebounded the Gasol brothers, 13-12, himself.
Gobert, the 22-year-old who played in just 45 games as a rookie for the Utah Jazz last season, has had a limited role on this team, backing up the smaller Lauvergne at center. But at 7-1 with a 9-foot-7 standing reach and a lot of bounce, he has a world of potential. He played a tourney-high 23 minutes on Wednesday and was, for the first time, on the floor down the stretch of a close game.
“He has a real desire to do good,” Collet said. “I think the dunk early in the game tonight gave him special energy and, for sure, he did an incredible job.”
Gobert had a strong Summer League. But this was a much bigger stage. He started to realize some of that potential on Wednesday, taking on the challenge of defending Pau Gasol and holding his own. He came up with one incredible block of an Ibaka tip-in and later swatted Gasol at the rim.
“He was incredible on defense,” France point guard Antoine Diot added. “When he plays like this, with his head, he’s fantastic.”
“For myself, I always knew I could help the team win,” Gobert said. “All my teammates played great offensively and I just had to guard Pau, because Pau is one of the best players in the world. If you stop him, they’re not the same team.”
Indeed, Spain played awful, and not just on offense. While France’s defense was near perfect, Spain’s guards got beat back-door countless times, leading to layups, open shots and offensive rebounds for France.
“We weren’t well prepared for this game,” Juan Carlos Navarro said.
Spain had looked determined to win this tournament on its home soil and to avenge gold-medal-game defeats to the U.S. in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Both Gasols showed up in Granada for pool play in terrific shape, while Navarro looked sharper than he did for FC Barcelona last season. Spain was a juggernaut through its first six games, jumping out ahead early and bullying its opponents into submission.
But when it was forced to play from behind and feel the pressure of a nation of fans on its shoulders, the team crumbled under all that weight. After trailing by seven at the half, Spain forced turnovers on France’s first four possessions of the third quarter and took a one-point lead into the fourth. But France answered with a 7-0 run and put the building on high alert.
“We kind of knew if we stay close,” Nicolas Batum said, “at the end of the game, they’re going to doubt, because they can’t lose that game.”
They did lose that game. There will be no USA-Spain final, because the hosts failed to do their part.
“It was a painful loss, disappointing,” Pau Gasol said. “This team had such high expectations. We had played an incredible tournament up to this point. It just wasn’t our night.”