DONGGUAN, China — No gold. No medal. No more winning streak.
The U.S. reign atop international basketball has ended — this time, thwarted by France at the World Cup.
For the first time since 2006, the U.S. sent NBA players to a major international tournament and won’t win gold. Evan Fournier scored 22 points, Rudy Gobert had 21 points and 16 rebounds and France beat the U.S. 89-79 in the World Cup quarterfinals Wednesday, rallying from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit to pull off the upset.
“Any loss hurts,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “And in this situation, it hurts more. But life goes on. This is very important and we would have loved to have won … but we’re all grown, we all have families and lives and life goes on.”
The U.S. had won 58 consecutive tournament games in FIBA and Olympic competition, starting with the bronze-medal game at the 2006 world championships and continuing through every international event since. It was bidding to become the first nation to win three consecutive World Cups, after winning three straight Olympic golds in that span.
The best the Americans can do now in China is finish fifth, and they’re assured of their worst finish in a big tournament with NBA players since placing sixth at the 2002 world championships. They’re going home with a berth in the 2020 Olympics secured but no medal.
Donovan Mitchell scored 29 points for the U.S., all of them coming in the first three quarters. The Americans came up scoreless on six consecutive possessions down the stretch, a drought that allowed the French to take control of a back-and-forth game.
“Just got to take it like a man at this point,” U.S guard Kemba Walker said. “We lost. There’s nothing we can do. We competed. We’ve been competing since day one that we got to training camp. But we gave it everything we’ve got. I know we’re Team USA and things of that nature and they’ve been winning for a lot of years, but you know, we didn’t get a chance to pull it off.”
Nando De Colo scored 18 points for France. The French held the U.S. to 4-for-15 shooting in the fourth quarter — and benefited from the Americans going 4-for-11 from the foul line in the final 10 minutes.
“We came here to win gold,” Gobert said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. A lot of people counted us out, but we got the win.”
Gobert said beating the Americans wasn’t the goal — winning gold is.
“It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t win in the end,” Gobert said.
France was up 10 early in the second half. The U.S. went on a 31-14 run over the next 10 minutes to go up by seven. And then the French responded with a 15-2 run over the next five minutes, going up 82-76 on a long jumper by Frank Ntilikina with 2:05 left.
Mitchell had a chance to get the U.S. within two with about a minute left, driving against Gobert — but the Utah Jazz center read what his Utah teammate was going to do perfectly, swatting the try away.
France had been 0-9 against the U.S. in major international play, most of those outcomes one-sided affairs. But the last meeting between the nations was a 100-97 U.S. win at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics three years ago, and France returned three players — Gobert, De Colo and Nicolas Batum — who got minutes in that game.
None of the U.S. players who played that afternoon in Rio is on this year’s World Cup team.
France out-rebounded the U.S. 21-12 in the first half, Gobert found his way to the line 10 times in the game’s first 20 minutes and the Americans went into the break trailing 45-39. The U.S. had trailed for 8:25 in their first five games combined — and trailed for 11:24 in the first half alone on Wednesday.
Fournier’s layup with 7:33 left in the third gave France a 53-43 lead, and that’s when Mitchell got going.
He had 14 points in the third quarter, and his dunk with 2:40 left pulled the U.S. into a 60-60 tie. Marcus Smart made three free throws after getting fouled by Gobert to put the U.S. back on top, and the Americans took a 66-63 lead into the fourth.
But they couldn’t finish it off.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to tip your cap to them,” U.S. guard Joe Harris said. “They outplayed us. They deserved to win. We certainly didn’t deserve to win that game.”
Australia’s win over the Czech Republic in the other quarterfinal on Wednesday gave France something else to celebrate — an Olympic berth. Spain and France are assured of being the top two World Cup finishers from Europe, earning them automatic spots into the field for the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Others qualified so far: the U.S., Nigeria, Iran, Australia, Argentina and Japan. The last four spots in the 12-team field will be decided next year