This is not how USA Basketball expected to open its Olympic summer. Nigeria probably wasn’t expecting it either.
If there was any expectation of invincibility for Americans heading to the Tokyo Olympics, it is already gone, after Nigeria stunned the US, 90-87, on Saturday night.
The result marked the United States’ first defeat to an African nation.
Nigeria achieved an international surprise with a roster filled primarily with little-known NBA players who found a way to beat a group of All-NBA, All-Star and top-contract players.
“We just wanted to compete,” said Nigerian Gabe Nnamdi, who calls himself Gabe Vincent when he plays for the Miami Heat. “We know what USA Basketball means around the world and what they have stood for for so long.”
The United States had lost 11 games prior to Saturday in major Olympics and World Cups of international play, primarily since NBA players began filling the American rosters with the first Dream Team in 1992.
“I thought the Nigerian team played very physically, did a great job in that regard and knocked down a lot of 3-pointers,” US coach Gregg Popovich said. “Give them credit.”
Nnamdi led Nigeria with 21 points. Caleb Agada scored 17 points, Ike Nwamu added 13 and Nigeria outscored the USA 60-30 from three-point range as they rebounded the hosts, 46-34.
Kevin Durant, who had never before played in a loss to USA Basketball in 39 senior international games, had 17 points. Jayson Tatum added 15, Damian Lillard 14 and Bam Adebayo 11.
“It just shows that we have to play better,” Tatum said.
The Americans had been 39-0 in their last three Olympic seasons, including pre-Olympic shows, on their way to gold medals and had been 54-2 in major shows since NBA players began playing for USA basketball defeated Nigeria by a combined 127 points in their last two encounters, one at the 2012 London Games and the other in the 2016 Rio Games warm-up.
Nigeria lost to the United States in the 2012 Olympics by 83 points. He lost again to the Americans four years later in an exhibition, this time by 44 points.
Not this time.
“Nigeria has come a long way with their basketball,” said USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo.
Ike Iroegbu, a former Washington state player who spent time in the G League, hit a 3-pointer with about 1:15 left to put Nigeria up 88-80. Durant scored the next seven points for the United States; a triple, two free throws after a turnover, then two more from the line with 16.5 seconds to go.
Nnamdi made two free kicks with 13.2 seconds remaining to restore Nigeria’s three-point lead. The Americans ran 9.7 seconds off the clock on subsequent possession without shooting, and Zach LaVine missed a pair of free throws, the second on purpose, with 3.5 seconds to go.
Precious Achiuwa got the rebound for Nigeria, and that was it. It’s just a display, but the surprise was still of great variety, the nation ranked 22nd by Fiba beating the No. 1 ranked team and reigning three-time Olympic gold medalists.
Popovich heard the final ring and shook hands with Nigerian coach Mike Brown, Golden State’s assistant, as the Americans stunned away.
There was an injury scare for the Americans late in the second quarter, when LaVine was injured on a play in which he was closing out against Nnamdi. He went airborne after a head fake and came down awkwardly, grabbing his left ankle before getting up and heading straight for the US locker room.
LaVine was fine and came back in the third quarter.
The biggest scare was the scoreboard. Nigeria was just 43-41 at the half, led for long stretches of the first 20 minutes and just wasn’t going to leave.
The United States is looking to bounce back from a seventh place at the 2019 Fiba World Cup, its worst result in an international tournament.
The Americans’ previous closest game against an African opponent was at the inaugural Fiba world championship in 1950, when the United States narrowly won 34-32 over Egypt.
No African team has ever reached the Olympic quarter-finals.
The United States will return to action on Monday when they face Australia in the second of five pre-Olympic shows.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism