OK, let’s start here: The international game is no doubt a different style of basketball, with a slight variation on certain rules, a wider lane and a 24-second shot clock.
But no matter the rules, the level of competition or the continent on which a game is played, one must ponder the strategy employed by Serbia in the final seconds of Kansas’ 66-65 victory early Wednesday morning at the World University Games.
With the score tied at 65-65, and Kansas’ United States squad looking for a game-winning basket, the Serbian team elected to intentionally foul Kansas’ Wayne Selden, putting the junior guard at the free-throw line.
Selden made one of two free throws, the Serbians came up empty in their final chances, and Kansas, representing the United States at the international tournament, would move to 4-0 in Gwangju, South Korea.
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“Our guys really wanted it,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “It was one of those games that it meant a lot to us, and we were trying really hard, but there was no gas left in the tank. We were running on empty. This is about as tired as I’ve seen a group.”
The United States, which was playing its fourth game in five days, clinched a spot in the eight-team medal-round as the likely top seed from Pool D. The Jayhawks will conclude pool play against Switzerland at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
“We’ll rest tonight and hopefully be able to play a lot of players tomorrow and then we’ll have a day off,” Self told reporters after the game. “Hopefully the timing is good for us to be fresh going into medal play.”
The bizarre nature of the final seconds obscured what was otherwise a perfectly solid — and competitive — basketball game between the two best teams from Pool D. Both teams — each with reasonable medal hopes — had entered the game with perfect 3-0 records.
The United States, led by a stirring performance from senior forward Hunter Mickelson, built a 62-57 in the waning minutes after a run sparked by a Mickelson block. But junior guard Frank Mason would foul out just moments later, and the Serbians would take a 65-62 lead in the final minute with an 8-0 run.
Undeterred, Selden responded with a clutch three-pointer from the wing. The Jayhawks picked up a stop on the other end. And that set up the final, head scratching decision to foul.
Selden, who is leading the World University Games in scoring, finished with a team-high 21 points, while Mickelson had 14 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench. The United States held Serbia to just 33 percent shooting from the field.
“Hunt (Mickelson) played like a grown man tonight with a lot of rebounds and a lot of tip-ins,” Selden said. “We got stops when it mattered.”
Just 20 hours earlier, the Kansas players had left Muan Indoor Gymnasium after dismantling Chile 106-41 in their third game in South Korea. The United States team had moved to 3-0 in pool play, setting up Tuesday’s match against Serbia as a nominal title game in Pool D.
For the opening 20 minutes, the United States took time feeling out Serbia’s zone. It was a slow process. When Selden finished back-to-back dunks — including an emphatic one-hander off a weave play — the Jayhawks surged to an 18-16 lead and looked poised to take control. But Serbia’s disciplined zone kept the game at a methodical pace. Team USA led 26-24 at halftime, and Kansas coach Bill Self was tasked with finding a way to turn up the tempo.
It proved difficult. Freshman forward Lagerald Vick would drill a three-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter, giving the United States a 40-37 lead entering the final 10 minutes. And Selden would add another three-pointer in the opening moments of the fourth, stretching the lead to 43-39. But the Serbians would respond with a 10-0 run, taking a 49-43 lead with just more than seven minutes to play.
The Jayhawks, for most of the night, had trouble matching up against Serbian big man Nikola Jovanovic, a 6-11 center who plays collegiate at Southern California. Serbian guard Stefan Pot was also a nemesis, finishing with 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
But once again, Team USA would respond, finding away to survive Serbia as the final second ticked off the clock inside Dongkang Gymnasium.
“It says a lot,” Mickelson said.” We’re playing hard; we’re playing together. We’re doing pretty good. But that game wasn’t our best. We were a little sluggish, a little up and down. Serbia is a great team … It was definitely a testament to what we’ve been doing to come out with a win in a game that close.”
What caught our eye
▪ Mickelson has been a crucial piece to a perfect tournament, averaging 10.8 points per game in the four victories. Self has sought to balance minutes during the tournament, but for the moment, Mickelson seems to have surpassed Landen Lucas and Jamari Traylor in the rotation.
▪ SMU guard Nic Moore played more than 30 minutes, dished out six assists and didn’t have a turnover. But perhaps tired legs contributed to an off shooting night. Moore was one of 11 from the field and took two questionable three-pointers in the final minutes.
▪ Senior forward Perry Ellis struggled to find a rhythm against a long Serbia team. He finished with seven points and nine rebounds while going two of 11 from the field.
▪ Forward Carlton Bragg had four points and two rebounds in 11 minutes; Lagerald Vick was one of two from three-point range while playing six minutes.
Up next: Switzerland
The United States will conclude pool play against Switzerland at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The times for the quarterfinals have not been announced, but a television schedule released before the games listed Kansas’ quarterfinal as likely tipping off at 12:30 a.m. (CT) Saturday.