BEIING (Olympics) - The United States sent their best to the Olympics and it’s a good thing they did because the Americans needed every weapon in their arsenal to beat Spain in the gold medal game.
After steamrolling the competition and charging into the final as huge favourites, Team USA had to put on an incredible shooting performance to win 118-107.
Mike Krzyzewski’s team hit a phenomenal 13 of 28 (46%) from three-point range with Dwyane Wade nailing four on the way to a game-high 27 points.
“I am proud of our guys,” Krzyzewski said.
“We played with great character in one of the great games of international basketball history, I think.
“If we didn't have great character we wouldn't have been able to beat another team that had great character.
“Spain were fabulous. Everything we did, we tried to stop them, we couldn't stop them completely and it was a great basketball game where everybody involved played at the highest level.
“It brought out the best in us. We are ecstatic about winning the gold medal."
The United States blew out Spain in their Group B preliminary round encounter 119-82 and nearly everyone believed they would be convincing winners again.
But a dynamic performance from Rudy Fernandez (22 pts), who hit five of nine from long range and even dunked over USA center Dwight Howard in the second half, and a brilliant offensive effort from Juan Carlos Navarro (18 pts) kept the world champions close for the entire game.
“Spain were unbelievable,” USA star LeBron James said.
“Every possession counted. You couldn't take one second off. If it wasn't for our determination, and the will power that we have on each other (shakes head) …
“Much respect for Spain but USA is back on top again."
Spain fell behind by 14 in the first half but maintained their concentration and only trailed 69-61 at half-time.
Aito Garcia Reneses’ men eventually closed the gap to 91-89 with 8:13 left when Fernandez, who will play for USA assistant coach and Portland Trail Blazers boss Nate McMillan this coming season in the NBA, hit a three-pointer.
Kobe Bryant (20 pts) went to the other end and scored in the lane, and following a Fernandez miss from behind the arc, the USA rushed the ball up the floor and a wide-open Deron Williams drilled a three to open up a seven-point advantage.
After Howard scored to extend the lead to 98-89, Fernandez gave Spain hope with another three. Yet Bryant replied immediately with a bomb.
Spain soon after suffered a hammer blow when Bryant, from several feet beyond the arc, made a three and was fouled by Fernandez – his fifth of the game.
Bryant sank the free throw for a 108-99 lead but Spain, even with Fernandez having fouled out, kept their poise.
The excellent Navarro scored with a runner in the paint and Spain captain Carlos Jimenez buried a three to make it 108-104 with 2:28 remaining.
Wade answered with a trey for the USA and Spain got no closer than six the rest of the way.
Spain’s bench was hit with a technical and 17-year-old Ricky Rubio was also called for one in the final minute, and the USA took advantage by making three of four free throws to pad the score at the end.
"It has been a very beautiful game to play,” said Spain’s Pau Gasol.
“It's a pity because we came mighty close. We had options during the game. I am proud of my team-mates, of the technical staff. I think this final game says a lot about what team we are and how we deserve to be in this position.
“We should be very proud of what we have accomplished here. We never backed down and played a tough game."
When asked if he thought this year’s team was like the Dream Team of 1992 that had players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Gasol said: "I think there was only one Dream Team, in my opinion. That Dream Team was very special, quite unique.
“There are teams that could be close to it but none like that one. That team changed a lot of things in basketball and made young people want to play the game."
The USA hit 70% (26 of 37) of their shots inside the arc, compared to Spain’s 38 of 75 (51%). Fernandez and Co finished eight of 17 (47%) from long range.
Spain out-rebounded the USA 37-31 and held up well under the defensive pressure, committing just 14 to 13 for the Americans.
Spain played well despite the absence of star point guard Jose Manuel Calderon, who missed his second straight game with a groin injury.
Rubio had six points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals in more than 28 minutes on the floor.
He has become the youngest basketball player at the age of 17 to win a medal at the Olympic Games.
Gasol, Bryant’s Lakers teammate, had 21 points and six rebounds for Spain while his brother Marc scored 11 and pulled down five boards.
Jimenez also had 12 points while Felipe Reyes capped a terrific Olympics with a team-high seven boards to go with his 10 points.
For the Americans, James finished with 14 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals while the outstanding Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony each scored 13.
USA Basketball had labelled this summer their Redemption Tour.
Team USA supremo Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski set out three years ago to establish a national team that could hit back from the Olympic disappointment of Athens when the players faced criticism for their attitude and play on the court.
Colangelo and Krzyzewski, the legendary coach at Duke University, selected a group of players, including Wade, Bryant, James, Carmelo Anthony, Howard, and Chris Paul – all key men in this year’s team - to draw on for the summers of 2006, ’07 and this year.
The USA didn’t win gold at the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan after being upset by Greece in the semi-finals, but after clinching first place at the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship in Las Vegas, they accomplished their goal of winning gold in China with a great performance on and off the court.
After going undefeated in the preliminary round, they defeated Australia in the quarter-finals, and then overcame defending champions Argentina in the last four before beating Spain in a thrilling final.
Bryant, a member of last year’s team in Las Vegas, was present at other games in this tournament and also made sure to watch other Olympians like Michael Phelps make history.
"Spain showed why they are the world champions,” he said. “This is a testament to the system that Mr. Colangelo put in place, what you saw today was the team.
“Everyone wants to talk about NBA players being arrogant, selfish, being individuals but what you saw today was a team bonding together, facing adversity and coming out of here with a big win."
When asked if the team would stay together, Colangelo joked: “What these guys didn’t know is they actually signed up for an eight-year commitment.”
Colangelo said that six of the players have already come forward on their own to say they want to stay with the program.
“You have to treasure this experience,” Paul said. “You never know. They may want another point guard in four years from now.”
Ironically, the United States had been the number one team in the world but the team has dropped in the FIBA rankings to second place behind Argentina.
By Jeff Taylor, Basketball World News