The Cubans are known for their cigars. But it was the Americans who were smoking on the basketball court on Friday night.
All it took to light a fire under Team USA in the first of two FIBA Americas World Cup Qualifying games in Santa Cruz was the jump ball. From there, the prideful Americans raced out to a 15-0 lead and rolled to an 84-48 win over Cuba in front of 2,033 fans at Kaiser Permanente Arena.
Rodney Purvis, a 6-foot-4 guard for the G League’s Lakeland Magic, scored 14 points; Xavier Silas, a 6-5 forward for the Northern Arizona Suns, added 13 and David Stockton, a 5-11 guard for the Reno Bighorns, added 10.
“We’re happy with the win, but we also know that there’s much improvement to be made if we’re to compete against Puerto Rico,” USA coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
Despite not having a true center on its roster full of G League players, Team USA (3-0) used superior positioning and hustle to outrebound the winless Cubans 54-42. The Americans also passed with zest, recording 24 assists.
Despite a bevy of fast-break opportunities — the U.S. scored 17 points off turnovers — the Americans are capable of showing more, Silas said.
“I think that we played hard,” he said. “Not hard enough. I think we had some mistakes that we can definitely fix before this next game. It’s all about being relentless. We didn’t do that the entire time, but I think there were some moments that we did.”
A smattering of ‘U-S-A’ chants from fans, some hoisting American flags, echoed in the arena as the clock counted down. Cuba drops to 0-3 in the Group C standings.
The Americans hope to improve upon their showing Monday, when they face Puerto Rico (2-1) at KP Arena in a nationally televised game at 8 p.m.
Only two players — 6-10 forward Travis Wear and 6-2 guard Larry Drew III — returned for Team USA from the first window of qualifying, when it defeated Puerto Rico 85-78 on Nov. 23 and Mexico 91-55 on Nov. 26.
That said, Van Gundy was impressed by the team’s ability to work together despite having just five practices. Santa Cruz Warriors guard Damion Lee, added to team Thursday to replace Canton Charge guard Marcus Thornton after he signed a 10-day contract with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, had just one practice. He played 20 minutes and recorded three points, three assists and two rebounds. Lee also took a charge from Dainer Martinez Ruiz in the fourth quarter, sliding some 15 feet on his back, across the key, after the hard contact was made.
“It’s more intense than the average G League game,” Van Gundy said of FIBA.
He added: “You have to adapt and adjust. The one thing you do know is all the good FIBA teams are very physical. It tests you, because in the G League and in the NBA, they have a thing called Freedom of Movement, that doesn’t go in FIBA basketball. You don’t have freedom to do anything.”
Van Gundy was also pleased with the way his team handled Cuba’s frontcourt, including 6-10 center Javier Justiz Fereer, who finished with six points and 10 rebounds.
“Justiz, he’s a load down there. He’s big and he’s skilled,” Van Gundy said.
Forward Yoanki Mensia Hernandez led Cuba with 11 points and five rebounds and Osmel Oliva Garcia added 10 points and two rebounds.
“USA is a quick team, a very fast team,” Mensia said through a translator. “The rhythm was always like that. They’re so fast. They run all the way, both ends of the floor. They’re avery good team.”
That trait was evidenced several times throughout the game. In the third quarter, Wear and forward Rashawn Thomas doubled covered Justiz after he got the ball in the post. Justiz tried to kick the ball out before losing control. Stockton gathered it raced down the left sideline and fed the ball to Wear in the post, where he finished with a thunderous dunk.
Silas wants to see more of that.
“I think Travis Wear had a pretty good one,” Silas said of his vote for best dunk of the night. “He got up good. He can fly. A lot of people think he’s just a shooter. He’s pretty athletic, too.
“The game against Mexico we barely had any transition points. Tonight was a little better. Hopefully we can get a little bit more against Puerto Rico. But it’s great to see guys dunking in transition.”
The fans loved.
“Yeah, and it’s an energy thing we need as well,” he said.