Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Suns’ Gordon lifts Bahamas into Olympic qualifier

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The Bahamian men’s basketball team, led by Indiana Pacers guard Buddy Hield, Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton and Suns guard Eric Gordon, delivered the country’s biggest victory in the sport Sunday, defeating Argentina 82-75 to win a spot in one of next summer’s qualifying tournaments for the Paris Olympic Games.

The Bahamas, whose head coach is Golden State Warriors assistant Chris DeMarco, outscored Argentina 23-12 in the fourth quarter to pull out the win — the team’s second in five days against the hosts — in front of a feisty home crowd.

“This is something that’s been years in the making,” DeMarco, who has been the team’s coach since 2019, told ESPN in a phone interview. “I’m so proud of our players for focusing on basketball and staying together and the sacrifices they made. I mean, this isn’t easy. This is everyone’s offseason. They’re not coming home. Argentina hosted this thing. We had to beat them on their home court twice. The effort from everyone involved, players, staff, support staff … it’s incredible.

“I have no other words for it.”

The Bahamas has never qualified for men’s basketball in either the Olympics or the FIBA World Cup. But by winning the qualification tournament in Argentina, where the Bahamians defeated Cuba and Argentina in group play before beating Uruguay Saturday ahead of a second win over the hosts Sunday night, they will now have a chance to earn their first trip to the Olympics next summer.

After fairly comfortable wins in each of their first three games in Argentina, however, Sunday’s championship game was anything but. It was a nip-and-tuck affair for most of the night, with Argentina leading by four at the start of the fourth quarter, and again retaking the lead with under 2 minutes to go.

But the Bahamas switched defenses to go to a zone that flummoxed Argentina’s offense, which essentially scored only off Bahamian turnovers over the game’s final minutes, and Gordon — who officially made his one-time switch from representing the United States, which he did when he won gold in the 2010 World Cup, only earlier this month — took care of the rest.

He finished with 27 points, hitting two step-back 3s inside the final 92 seconds — including one with 20 seconds to go that put the Bahamas up by five and all but ended the game — to seal the win on a night when Ayton and Hield combined to go 10-for-31 from the field.

But DeMarco praised Ayton, who finished with 21 rebounds and played 38 minutes, for his selfless play during the tournament in what was the No. 1 pick’s first time playing for the national team since DeMarco took over. Hield, meanwhile, has been a significant part of the program throughout the past several years, taking part whenever he has been able to.

“These guys all knew each other, but we had to come together as a team, and find what works for us,” DeMarco said. “The game isn’t played on paper. I think sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, he’s in the NBA. They’re going to win.’ It’s not like that. FIBA’s a different game. It takes a lot to come into an opponent’s gym, in their country, in a hostile environment and be as resilient as we were tonight.”

The task ahead of the Bahamas to actually make the Olympics remains steep. Winning this tournament guarantees only that the Bahamian national team will now earn one of 24 spots across four automatic qualification tournaments next summer.

Those 24 teams will be split into four groups of six, with the winners of each of them earning the four wild-card spots for the 12-team field in Paris.

The other eight berths will be comprised of France, which automatically qualifies as the host country, followed by seven teams that will qualify via their performance in this year’s FIBA World Cup, which begins Friday.

Still, that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of winning this tournament — and, particularly, where the Bahamas won it. Argentina is one of the world’s great basketball powers. It is the only country besides the United States that has won a gold medal in men’s basketball since professional players began participating in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, when the Dream Team steamrollered its way to gold.

The Argentinians also won bronze four years later and the silver medal at the 2019 World Cup, and have a roster that currently features several players who have played in the NBA.

But the Bahamian team — which had to take three flights to reach its destination in Argentina, and whose starting point guard, Lourawls Nairn, is an assistant coach with Bowling Green and played Sunday after tweaking his shoulder in Saturday’s win over Uruguay — managed to do the improbable, defeating the hosts twice in the span of five days, to put this country in a position to do something it never has before.

“It was just a long time coming, man,” DeMarco said. “To go from where we were at to have a chance, obviously next summer, to make the Olympics and keep building this thing and keep building Bahamas basketball in general.

“There’s a ton of talent — not just in the men’s game and the women’s side as well, and in the junior programs — and we want to showcase that.”

Other pre-qualifying tournament winners Sunday included Cameroon, Bahrain, Croatia and Poland.

Cameroon was an 80-74 winner over Senegal to win in Nigeria; Bahrain finished 5-0 in a tournament in Syria; Croatia defeated Turkey in another final; and Poland outlasted Bosnia and Herzegovina 76-72 for its qualifying berth.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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