Jameel Warney and Reggie Hearn each scored 17 points and the United States opened qualifying for the 2019 Basketball World Cup with an 85-78 victory over Puerto Rico on Thursday night.
Xavier Munford scored 12 points and Markel Brown added 10 for the Americans, who trailed 57-51 late in the third. A 10-0 run late in that quarter gave the U.S. the lead, and a 22-12 burst in the fourth decided things.
"Those of our players that have played in a FIBA game, I think knew what to expect," U.S. coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "But those that had not played in a FIBA game, it was harder for them initially to adapt and adjust. We got hit with haymakers early, and I was really proud of our guys."
Hearn scored 16 of his points in the second half for the U.S., the two-time defending World Cup champions. The Americans are using players from the G League to try and qualify for the tournament, to which the U.S. would send NBA stars in an effort to claim another gold.
Angel Vassallo scored 16 points and Angel Rodriguez finished with 13 points and eight assists for Puerto Rico, which led by as many as nine early.
"We were just happy to come out with the victory," Hearn said. "Coach did a great job of coaching us. A lot of guys stepped up in the second half, and we were happy to get the victory. We're going to go back to the hotel and eat some turkey."
The Americans and Puerto Ricans are in Group C of the World Cup qualifying; Mexico beat Cuba 72-66 in the other Group C opening game later Thursday night.
Hearn's 3-pointer with 8:15 left broke a tie and the Americans wouldn't trail again. Rodriguez made back-to-back 3-pointers late to get Puerto Rico within four, but the U.S. scored the next six points to push the lead out to 83-73.
Warney also had 11 rebounds for the U.S., which outrebounded Puerto Rico 44-26.
Although the game was in Orlando, the U.S. was technically on the road. Puerto Rico was supposed to host Thursday, but could not because of the ongoing recovery efforts from the devastation all over the island caused by Hurricane Maria.
There seemed to be a bit of home-court advantage for the Puerto Ricans. There were Puerto Rican flags, some Latin music coming through the speakers, even advertising signage in Spanish. When Vassallo opened the game with a pair of 3-pointers for a quick 6-0 lead, most of the pro-Puerto Rico crowd was roaring.
In the end, though, the result was as the Americans would expect.
"Hats off to the Puerto Rican team," Hearn said. "They played with a lot of heart and a lot of grit. It was a great game. I thought it was a great game for the fans."
USA: Larry Drew II (strained right hamstring) did not play. Each of the other 11 players on the U.S. roster all got in before halftime. ... In the 10-0 run late in the third, the U.S. got four baskets - each by someone different. ... Jeff Van Gundy improved to 6-0 as U.S. coach, after leading the Americans to gold in the AmeriCup this summer.
Puerto Rico: Gian Clavell, who appeared in seven games with the Dallas Mavericks this season before getting waived last week, scored 11 points. ... Puerto Rico's bench got outscored by the U.S. reserves 49-28.
Many of Puerto Rico's players have some sort of Miami tie. Clavell, Rodriguez, Guillermo Diaz, David Huertas and Carlos Rivera all played high school ball in South Florida. Diaz and Rodriguez played for the University of Miami, Ricky Sanchez's draft rights were held by the Miami Heat, and Clavell was once a Heat summer-league player.
After this initial window of games ends this weekend, the qualifiers will continue with more play on Feb. 23, Feb. 26, June 28 and July 1. The top three teams in Group C will qualify for the second round. The second round starts in mid-September and runs through February 2019, and the World Cup in China begins Aug. 31, 2019.
USA: Host Mexico on Sunday in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Puerto Rico: Visit Cuba on Sunday in Havana.
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