HAVANA (AP) — There were cheers for “The Star-Spangled Banner” ahead of USA Basketball’s game in Cuba on Independence Day.
And then the Americans celebrated the holiday with a big victory.
Xavier Munford scored 24 points and the United States beat Cuba 87-64 on Monday night to close the first round of qualifying for next year’s Basketball World Cup – improving to 31-1 all-time against the island nation.
“It’s emotional to play on July 4,” said Jim Boylen, who coached the United States in all three two-game windows of the first qualifying round. “It’s emotional to be here with this group of guys, with the United States on our chests. It’s a great day. Our country turns 246 today and we’re just grateful for this moment together.
Munford was 10 of 12 from the floor for the Americans, who got 13 points from Justin Jackson, 12 from John Jenkins – all 3-pointers – and 10 each from Will Davis and Langston Galloway.
“It is the 4th of July. No better feeling than getting a win tonight,” said Munford.
Jordan Bell finished with eight rebounds and six assists for the Americans, whose spot in the second qualifying round had previously been assured. They’ll be 5-1 in the second round, well on their way to earning a World Cup berth and taking a big step toward USA Basketball’s qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Yoel Cubilla led Cuba (0-6) with 15 points.
The Americans will enter the second round of World Cup qualifying on August 25, with hopes that the first game will be against Uruguay in Las Vegas. The United States will also play on August 29, likely on the road and likely against Colombia, although FIBA has yet to confirm that as a match.
The two road victories on this trip – the Americans beat Puerto Rico on Friday – put the United States in a privileged position to qualify for the World Cup. The roster was made up mostly of players from the G League, as is always the case for the Americans in World Cup qualifying, and Boylen said that group was quickly put together.
“We got together 11 days ago and our team was focused, our guys were great, we worked on the basics, we got better every day and I thought we were playing the right way,” Boylen said. “The ball moved, we grew together and cared about each other.”
The United States will be grouped with Brazil, Uruguay, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Colombia in the second round. Also grouped from the Americas region will be Venezuela, Argentina, Panama, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas.
These two groups will send three teams to the World Cup; the top fourth-place team from either group will also go, with the Americas region sending seven teams to the tournament to be played in the summer of 2023 in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia.
Cuba led 16-14 after the first quarter Monday night. That is, until the Americans scored 14 points in the first 2:19 of the second quarter.
“We lost the first quarter, but I thought the second quarter we answered,” Boylen said.
A 3-pointer from Jackson opened the second quarter, put the United States ahead for good, and the Americans were on their way. The lead was 49-32 going into the third – ending a 35-16 run by the United States – and the Americans stayed ahead the rest of the way.
“The Cuba team was great,” Munford said. “They came out with great effort. They made us work for it. They had strong guys. We played well tonight. We executed, took care of the ball, directed our offense and played basketball the USA way.
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