Their final game at the World Cup had been over for several minutes, and every member of the U.S. team and coaching staff were still lingering together on the court.
They were ready to go home. They just weren’t ready to go their separate ways.
For USA Basketball, summer ended Saturday with an 87-74 win over Poland in the seventh-place game at the World Cup, the lowest finish ever by a U.S. team in a major international tournament. Donovan Mitchell finished with 16 points and 10 assists, Joe Harris scored 14 and the U.S. wrapped up its stay in China with a 6-2 record.
And when it was over, as his players signed each other’s jerseys in the locker room as souvenirs, U.S. coach Gregg Popovich insisted this team has nothing to be ashamed about.
“If you don’t win, some people will play the blame game,” Popovich said. “There’s no blame to be placed anywhere. They play the shame game, like we should be ashamed because we didn’t win a gold medal? That’s a ridiculous attitude. It’s immature. It’s arrogant. And it shows that whoever thinks that doesn’t respect all the other teams in the world and doesn’t respect that these guys did the best they could.”
Khris Middleton had 13 points, six rebounds and six assists for the Americans. Derrick White scored 12 and Harrison Barnes added 10 for the U.S., which led by 17 at the half but had to stave off a Poland rally in the final minutes.
The mantra the Americans carried into Saturday was to finish the trip the right way, and they got it done.
“I’m going to look back on it and have unbelievable memories,” Harris said. “These are friendships that are very unique, where we’ve formed a special bond going through what we just did together. Some of these guys who I might not have had a chance to know otherwise are now some of my closest friends. It’s unique in that way.”
There was little to play for except pride — and the Americans were playing with the realization that for some of them, it easily could be their last time wearing the red, white and blue uniforms with “USA” across the chest. The roster for the U.S. trip to the Tokyo Olympics next summer is likely to look considerably different than this one.
“For me, this is an amazing experience,” Mitchell said. “Everybody likes to look at the end goal, but when you sit back and reflect, I played on Team USA. That’s incredible for me. I think that in itself is amazing. So yes, it was definitely worth it.”
Poland coach Mike Taylor also found the World Cup most worthwhile — especially Saturday.
He’s an American, lives in Florida, is proud of how far he’s taken Poland’s program, knows many of the words to the Polish national anthem — but mouthed along with the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” when it played pregame.
“I’ve been coaching with national teams, four years with the Czech Republic and now six years with Poland,” Taylor said, his voice cracking slightly. “That’s a lot of anthems you’ve heard. And I never imagined in my life that I would hear the United States. It means a lot and it’s not something you take for granted.”
Mateusz Ponitka scored 18 points, Adam Waczynski had 17 and Louisville-born A.J. Slaughter finished with 15 for Poland (4-4), which was in the World Cup for the first time since 1967.
“You look down at the U.S. bench, you see one of the greatest coaches ever in Coach Pop, you see Steve Kerr, you see all those guys and you can’t believe it,” Slaughter said. “It was a lasting moment that I’ll have for the rest of my life.”
Popovich said it’s too early to think about what USA Basketball needs to do before getting ready for the Tokyo Games. But he warned — just as two-time gold medalist Kobe Bryant did on Friday — that the days of American romps to gold are done.
“There are a lot of great teams in the world,” Popovich said. “It’s not written in stone that the United States is supposed to walk to a championship. That’s pretty old-school thinking. Even the teams that have won in the past had a lot of close calls.”
When it’s time for that Tokyo team to get assembled, Mitchell made it clear that he wants to be part of the squad.
“I think I have to wait for them to ask,” Mitchell said. “But I want to be there.”