It’s now bronze at best for Canada at the FIBA World Championships.
And that’s taking nothing away from Canada’s efforts at this already wildly successful and program-altering tournament which has already resulted in a berth in next summer’s Olympics in Paris and their first trip into the medal round.
But a chance to go for gold at these World Championships came to an end against an extremely physical Serbian team — and perhaps more precisely a Serbian team that can play that physical style and stay on the right side of the whistle — who led the way from the opening tip to the final horn in this one, earning a spot in Sunday’s final with a 95-86 win over Canada.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, a sharpshooter in the NBA but so much more in the international game, lived up to all his pre-game billing, filling the scoresheet and more importantly drawing fouls at will in a personal tour de force in the semi-final win.
Bogdanovic led Serbia with 23 points but also had four rebounds, three assists and three steals against just one turnover in the game.
Canada’s R.J. Barrett equaled those 23 points but Serbia controlled Canada’s best scoring option in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, holding him to eight shots and just 15 points.
Overall, it was Canada’s inability to match Serbia’s physicality without fouling that loomed large in this one.
Canada had already been whistled for more fouls through three quarters than had been called at any game in the tournament. Canada’s head coach, Jordi Fernandez, clearly wasn’t interested in blaming or even judging the officials, but that stat did catch his attention when it was brought up in his post-game press conference.
“That’s a great stat,” Fernandez began. “As coaches, we always say you have to defend without fouling and be physical without fouling. Today, apparently, we were not. Obviously, I’m not going to get into judging the officiating, but our guys kept fighting. In that third quarter we cut it down to seven and were so close to making a run. We were right there but we couldn’t get a stop so that is going to be our focus (going into the bronze medal game).
“The officials will never be our focus. We’re going to go fight really hard.”
Fernandez preferred to point to Serbia’s 62% success rate in shooting as the main culprit in his squad’s defeat.
“I think we lost because we didn’t defend,” Fernandez said. “I’ll leave the officiating for whoever judges the officials. I can only say to them, thanks for doing their jobs. Without officials, we couldn’t play the game of basketball. We just have to get better.
“I’m proud of my guys,” he continued. “It was not perfect. We were OK offensively. We were atrocious defensively. When a team shoots 62% from the field, and 45% from three, obviously something was not done well. We didn’t prepare well enough for the game.”
Serbia’s experience in international play was on display from the opening tip. Canada gamely tried to match their physicality and were more than willing combatants but were unable to do so without fouling, putting themselves in an early hole from which they never recovered.
Canada will now play for bronze, taking on the U.S. — which lost to Germany in Friday’s other semifinal — on Sunday while Serbia gets the winner of that game in the gold-medal match.
The first half was one nightmare after another for Canada.
Serbia got out of the gate quickly, building an early seven-point lead as they established their inside game.
Canada rallied back with some solid outside shooting, but then early foul trouble started taking its toll.
With Gilgeous-Alexander picking up two early fouls that were quickly followed by two for both Dillon Brooks and Dwight Powell, Canada’s problems grew exponentially.
Both Brooks (with four minutes left in the half) and SGA (in the final minute) would pick up their third fouls as Serbia just kept adding to their lead.
By the time Canada finally got to the locker room for halftime, the Serbian lead was up to 13, the largest halftime deficit Canada has faced all tournament.
Dwight Powell took a hard shot late in the second quarter. Powell, who rarely complains, interrupted his coach’s conversation with one of the officials and despite protests from Fernandez who tried to cut him off, had his say asking the official, “And what happens if I break my neck?”
It summed up the physical nature of the entire game rather succinctly.
Credit Canada for their perseverance in this one.
They managed to cut the halftime lead from 13 all the way down to seven in the third quarter, playing better in the third and with less foul trouble, but Serbia maintained most of its advantage.
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Brooks, who began the third with back-to-back three pointers to get Canada right back in it, almost immediately thereafter picked up his fourth foul and was lost for the remainder of that pivotal third quarter. Canada was not as much of a threat for the remainder of the quarter without Brooks and his contagious enthusiasm and physicality.
It was another learning lesson for Canada, and they will all add up as they prepare for the Olympic Games next summer in Paris.
“We don’t have enough of experience playing these games, myself first and our group of guys, but if we keep doing what we’re doing, I think we’ll be really good,” Fernandez said.
“I’m excited for our future. I’m excited for these guys and the young guys coming in having these guys as role models and seeing how you work and how you work through the summer. What we need to do now is bounce back and be excited about this next game.”