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USA Basketball beats Mexico to clinch AmeriCup berth

The USA clinches a spot in the 12-team final field, part of the process to qualify for the upcoming Basketball World Cup and Paris Olympics.

Yante Maten (11) scored 21 points to lead the USA past Mexico.

USA Basketball went into a bubble and emerged with a berth in the 2022 FIBA AmeriCup.

Yante Maten scored 21 points, Josh Maggette added 19 and the U.S. topped Mexico 94-78 on Monday, moving to 4-0 in Group D qualifying and securing a spot in the tournament that serves as the championship of the 44 teams in the FIBA Americas zone — comprised of nations from North America, South America, Central America and the Caribbean.

“It means a lot because I get to represent for my country,” Maten said. “I think everyone can represent in a different way and I represent mine through basketball. I’m very honored to be here and to be able to say that I helped accomplish something big.”

John Jenkins scored 16 points, Travis Trice had 14 and Levi Randolph added 12 for the Americans, who ended their weeklong stay in Indianapolis — inside a bubble, where players and coaches were all tested often for the coronavirus and fans were kept away — with a pair of wins in two days under coach Mike Fratello. As has been the case throughout qualifying, the U.S. used a team of players with primarily G League experience for the games.

NBA training camps are starting this week, and some members of this team will have invites to join rosters in the coming days. But many players on the U.S. roster face uncertain futures, and Fratello told them before Monday’s game to play as if it would be their final game for a while.

“I wanted to be part of helping the United States move on and qualify for the next thing,” Fratello said. “The fact we were able to do that was very rewarding to me. I love to see young guys get together, form a team, work together, play defense together, pass the ball together and then have success. That’s what this week, these last two weeks, have been all about.”

The U.S., which has won the AmeriCup gold medal seven times in nine previous attempts, is the second country to clinch a spot in the 12-team final field. Brazil is the other nation that has clinched; there are 14 teams left to vie for the 10 remaining spots in the tournament that is scheduled for Sept. 2-11, 2022 at a to-be-determined site.

All the Americans needed to clinch a spot was to finish in the top three places of their four-team qualifying group. They got that done with ease; Mexico is now 2-2, while Puerto Rico and The Bahamas are both 1-3 — Puerto Rico rallied in the final minutes to beat The Bahamas 91-85 earlier Monday.

In their first three games of AmeriCup qualifying, the U.S. never trailed. That wasn’t the case Monday; the Americans trailed on three occasions, all of them in the first quarter, for a total of 77 seconds.

By halftime, they were in control.

The U.S. lead was 27-26 midway through the second quarter; a 25-8 run over the next five-plus minutes pushed the margin out to 52-34 at the break. The lead grew to as much as 26 in the second half before Mexico got within 11 midway through the fourth quarter, but the outcome never seemed in much doubt.

Lucas Martinez led Mexico with 17 points.

“We finished the game tough,” Mexico coach Paco Olmos said. “For us, this was really important.”

The final qualifying games are in February. Mexico plays Puerto Rico and the U.S. faces The Bahamas on Feb. 18; then on Feb. 21, Mexico meets the U.S. again and The Bahamas will play Puerto Rico.

For the Mexicans, Bahamians and Puerto Ricans, those games will decide their AmeriCup fates. For the Americans, they’ll be little more than scrimmages. It’s unclear if Fratello will remain as the coach for the last two qualifying games; his NBA broadcasting commitments may keep him away.

The AmeriCup qualifying is part of the complex qualifying system for nations to reach events like the 2023 Basketball World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics. Only the host nations — the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia for the next World Cup, and France for the 2024 Olympics — automatically qualify for those tournaments. All other nations must graduate through a series of other tournaments, such as the AmeriCup, to make those fields.