MANILA – Everything had looked so easy for the U.S. at the Basketball World Cup. Points were coming in bunches, final scores were blowouts and stress wasn't a problem.
If the Americans were waiting for a serious test at the World Cup, they can wait no more. Facing a 26.5-point underdog in Montenegro in a second-round opener for both teams, they trailed by a point at the half, didn't take the lead for good until midway through the third quarter and still had a contest on their hands until the final minutes.
They found a way in the end, winning 85-73 to remain unbeaten. And that result, combined with Lithuania's win later Friday over Greece, sent the Americans to the quarterfinals regardless of what happens Sunday against Lithuania.
“These games are going to happen," U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. “And you have to be able to fight through them. I thought our guys did a great job of that.”
Anthony Edwards scored all of his team-high 17 points in the second half for the Americans (4-0), who got 12 from Austin Reaves and 11 from Jaren Jackson Jr. Mikal Bridges and Tyrese Haliburton each added 10 for the U.S., which didn't pull away until late in the fourth.
"It wasn't the prettiest game," Haliburton said. “But what FIBA games really are?”
Nikola Vucevic had 18 points and 16 rebounds for Montenegro, which led 39-38 at the half. Kendrick Perry scored 14 for Montenegro (2-2).
It was a must-win for the country, and it darn near pulled off a stunner.
“We played well and we made it as tough for them as we could,” said Vucevic, who plays for the Chicago Bulls. “But in the end, quality prevailed.”
The U.S. led 61-55 going into the fourth and tacked a point on to make it a seven-point edge — its biggest of the game to that point — early in the final quarter.
Montenegro just wouldn't go away. A 3-pointer by Nikola Ivanovic got the underdogs within 64-62 with 7:15 remaining, and the Americans couldn't exhale until the final seconds — a far cry from the way the first three games of the tournament went, with points coming in bunches and the U.S. winning every game by at least 27 points.
“It's good for us to get one of these games,” Reaves said.
Montenegro had a game plan and worked it nearly to perfection: Slow the Americans down by any means necessary — “our only hope,” Vucevic said. That included well-timed substitutions, sprinting back on defense, whatever it took.
The Americans know they'll see more of that going forward.
“We’ve got to get stops and get rebounds so we can’t go against a set defense every time,” Edwards said. “If they set their defense, they’re going to pack the paint, load up and make us shoot. And I shot terrible from the outside today. I don’t know what’s going on but I’ll figure it out.”
He figured it out only once from long range Friday, but it was a big moment. Edwards’ only 3-pointer came with 6:07 left, putting the U.S. up 69-62. It stayed a two-possession game, at least, for much of the remainder of the contest.
“A small country like Montenegro, we played tonight maybe one of the best games ever,” Montenegro coach Bosko Radovic said. “We played such a good team.”
USA: Kessler got earlier-than-usual minutes, in large part because of the success Montenegro’s big front line in the paint. Cam Johnson was not in Friday’s rotation. … Paolo Banchero played with a wrap on his right thumb, which he hurt on a pass in the Greece game.
Montenegro: Before Friday, Montenegro had only a 4-4 record this summer — 2-1 at the World Cup, 2-3 in exhibitions leading up to the tournament. … Perry is a Florida native, someone who played four years of college basketball at Youngstown State (averaging 16.2 points) and briefly had time in the G League before spending the last decade or so in various international leagues.
Friday marked the first time the U.S. played the national team currently known as Montenegro at the senior men’s level. The U.S. beat the former Yugoslavia — made up of Serbia and Montenegro — in the gold-medal game at the 1996 Olympics.
Once again, the U.S. didn’t come out flying in the opening minutes. The Americans got down 14-4 to New Zealand and 6-2 to Greece to open those games, and they were in a quick 11-4 hole on Friday.
USA: Plays Lithuania on Sunday.
Montenegro: Plays Greece on Sunday.