SHANGHAI – In the ultimate moments, everything hinged on free throws.
Turkey missed them.
The U.S. made them.
And that is how the Americans escaped what would have been a massive World Cup upset. Khris Middleton's two free throws with 2.1 seconds left in overtime capped a wild finish to a wild game, as the U.S. held off Turkey 93-92 in a Group E game Tuesday night – a contest that the underdogs simply gave away in the final moments.
“It was a heck of a game,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “As we all know, it was anybody's game. We will accept the win.”
The U.S. wasted a 15-point lead in the first half, didn't trail until the final moments of regulation, needed two free throws from Jayson Tatum with one-tenth of a second left just to get into overtime, came back from five points down in the extra session and – if all that wasn't enough – needed Turkey to go 0 for 4 from the foul line in the last nine seconds.
“It means a lot. It means a lot, man,” U.S. guard Kemba Walker said.
Dogus Balbay missed a pair following an intentional foul with the U.S. down one, and Cedi Osman missed two more about a second later. Those misses by Osman set up the last U.S. possession, one where Tatum controlled a rebound, brought the ball down and found Middleton for a drive to the rim, drawing as foul. Tatum went down, spraining his left ankle on the play.
The U.S. didn't go down with him.
After Middleton made both free throws, Ersan Ilyasova missed a jumper for Turkey as time expired and the U.S. survived.
“It really hurts,” Turkey's Furkan Korkmaz said. “I think it was in our hands – not their hands.”
Middleton led the U.S. with 15 points. Walker, who single-handedly accounted for the rally from down five, scored 14. Tatum finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Ilyasova led Turkey with 23 points. Melih Mahmutoglu had 18, Furkan Korkmaz scored 16 and Osman added 15 for Turkey – which was within a hair of one of the biggest wins in its basketball history, on a night when it seemed like all 18,000 whistling and hooting fans at the Shanghai Oriental Sports Center were in their favor.
“I need mental strength to overcome this,” Turkey coach Ufuk Sarica said.
The Americans have now won 21 consecutive World Cup games, extending the record for any nation at FIBA's signature event. The U.S. also extended its winning streak to 55 games in international tournaments with NBA players on the roster, starting with the bronze-medal game at the 2006 world championships.
And they clinched a spot in the second round – though that seemed ancillary.
“We capped it off at the end,” U.S. center Myles Turner said. “All that matters. JT, Kemba, Khris, a lot of guys made big plays down the stretch.”