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USA fights off Cuba in FIBA World Cup qualifying

Former NBA All-Star Isaiah Thomas finishes with team-high 21 points, including a critical 3-pointer with 13.3 seconds remaining.

Dan Mccarney

Chihuahua, Mexico —  Outscoring an upset-minded Cuba (0-1) 11-6 over the game’s final 3:40, the USA (1-0) opened FIBA World Cup Qualifying play with a hard-fought 95-90 victory on Sunday in Chihuahua, Mexico. The USA will complete World Cup Qualifying window one play on Monday at 9 p.m. EST versus host Mexico (1-0). Mexico defeated Puerto Rico (0-1) 90-86 in Sunday night’s Group D finale. The USA-Mexico game will be streamed live on Twitch.

Two-time NBA All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas (free agent) finished with a USA high 21 points, including a critical 3-pointer with 13.3 seconds remaining in the game to help seal the USA victory. BJ Johnson  (Lakeland Magic) added 16 points on 4-of-7 3-point shooting, Brian Bowen II (Iowa Wolves) contributed 16 points and added a team-best nine rebounds, while Justin Anderson (free agent) scored 10 points.

“It was a great game, it was a tough game for us. We didn’t play perfect, but we got the win and that’s the ultimate goal, and we’re just gonna learn from tonight,” said Thomas. “You know we just stayed at it, we just stayed the course in the game. We stuck to the game plan, and we got the win. We’re excited about the win, but we’re also excited about building on it and playing even better tomorrow.”

Isaiah Thomas leads Team USA past Cuba in first World Cup qualifying game.

The USA shot 49.3% from the field and 41.7% (15-36) from 3-point, but Cuba countered by mking 51.4% of its shots from the field and 40.0% (10-25) from 3-point. The USA held a 42-33 advantage on the glass.

“Give Cuba a lot of credit. I thought they brought it to us, said USA head coach Jim Boylen. “They were ready to play. Their physicality matched with their skill level tonight. They shot the ball well, they moved the ball.

“We’ve had a good week of preparation. We have prepared for those moments, and we were organized and he (Isaiah Thomas) made a huge play, a big play,” said Boylen of Thomas’ critical 3-pointer. “I thought he made a couple great plays at the end. Not only the 3-point shot, but the drive baseline pitch is something that we’ve worked on for end of game.”

Falling behind 10-3, the USA was forced several times to battled back to stay within reach of Cuba.

The Americans led 22-21 following a 3-pointer from Bowen, but Cuba ended the first quarter with a 16-5 run to take a 37-27 lead into the second quarter.

The USA opened the second stanza with a 14-4 run that evened the score 41 all with 7:27 to play. Leading 52-51 late into the second quarter, the U.S., following back-to-back 3-pointers from Zavier Simpson (Oklahoma City Blue) and Bowen and a Will Davis II  (free agent) jumper, went to locker room ahead 60-53.

Cuba, however, showed no signs of letting the USA breaking the game open, and after outscoring the Americans 24-13 in the third quarter, Cuba led 77-73 heading in the game’s final 10 minutes.

The U.S. fell behind 80-73, but 3-pointers from Bowen and Thomas, were followed by a Thomas traditional three-point play, and the USA was back in front 82-80.

Holding a narrow one-point advantage, 85-84, Johnson drained his fourth 3-pointer of the game with 2:44 remaining to lift the USA lead to 88-84. Cuba scored and made it 88-86 with 1:14 to play, but Thomas sank a short floater in the lane to push the USA in front 90-86 with 55 seconds left.

Cuba’s Jasiel Rivero, who tallied a game-high 34 points, made it a two point game once again after scoring with 34 seconds to play.

Thomas answered one final time for the USA, draining a 3-pointer with 13.3 seconds left. Rivero kept the game’s outcome unknown after scoring on an offensive rebounds with 6.3 second to go, leaving the score 93-90.

Johnson was fouled on the ensuing inbounds pass and after calmly sinking both free throw tries with 5.2 seconds showing on the clock, the Americans had the victory.

“Just staying with it,” said Johnson when asked what the key was to earning the win. “They gave us their best shot and sometimes teams fold in those moments.  I think we did a good job of not letting them getting us out of our game, and we focused on what we needed to do and down the stretch we made some big plays and got the win.”

Assisting Boylen are experienced USA Basketball coaches Othella Harrington and Ty Ellis.

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