MANILA – 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, 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% on Tuesday and were just 7 of 38 (18%) 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 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.
Italy had beaten the U.S. only twice in 14 previous tries at the senior men’s national level, both times at the world championships — which FIBA now calls the World Cup. The first was in 1970 on the way to a fifth-place finish for the U.S. The second was in 1978, in Manila no less, a defeat that helped relegate the Americans to a fifth-place finish that year as well.
The Italians hung around, for a few minutes. The U.S. didn’t get into an early hole — as has been the case multiple times in this World Cup — but the lead was only 10-8 when the Americans went to the second unit, which has been a strength all summer.
And it was again. It was 24-14 after one, the lead was out to 22 by the half and the countdown to Friday was soon on.
“We were ready,” Bridges said. “And we're going to stay ready until we get out of here.”
USA: The U.S. was 16.5-point favorites at game time, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. … Starting center Jaren Jackson Jr., who picked up two fouls in the first 2:50 of Sunday’s loss to Lithuania, got called for two in the first 2:14 on Tuesday. … NBA superfan Jimmy Goldstein, a fixture courtside at big games in arenas all over the U.S., was in attendance.
Italy: Fontecchio (Utah) is the only current NBA player on Italy’s roster. Nicolo Melli and Datome have past NBA experience. … Guaranteed no worse than eighth place, this will be Italy's best World Cup showing since finishing sixth in 1998.
USA: Face Germany or Latvia in semifinals Friday.
Italy: Face Germany or Latvia in consolation playoffs Thursday.