Despite boasting a roster featuring only one established NBA star and no real point guard to speak of, Great Britain entered the final day of pool play in the men's basketball tournament at the 2012 Summer Olympics having come close to tasting victory a couple of times. While the British team did suffer blowout losses in its opener against Russia and on Saturday against Australia, coach Chris Finch's crew competed fiercely in its middle two contests, only to see late-game cold snaps and miscues lead to a five-point defeat by Brazil and a heartbreaking one-point loss to heavily favored Spain. Behind leading scorers Luol Deng, Joel Freeland and Pops Mensah-Bonsu, the British team had fought hard and drawn near, but had yet to score a W.
Already eliminated from knockout-stage contention, Great Britain took the only prize left for it on Monday afternoon, scoring a 90-58 victory over China that not only allowed the Brits to avoid a winless turn as the host nation of the 2012 Summer Games, but also marked the British men's national team's first victory at the Olympics since Aug. 12, 1948, when they beat Ireland, 46-21. (I think we all remember where we were when that contest went final.)
And even that win came only in the so-called "classification round" — essentially, a slew of non-tournament consolation games played just to determine the final order of the 23 nations that competed. So when the Agence France-Presse notes that "Britain won a basketball game for the first time in Olympic history" on Monday, they're technically on the money.
After falling behind 7-0 to open the game after 63 seconds, the British barged back, outscoring China 27-8 in the balance of the period to take a 12-point lead that they'd never relinquish after one quarter. The weapon of choice for the Brits was the long ball — they attempted a whopping 36 3-pointers on Monday afternoon, hitting 13 against a Chinese defense that had difficulty running British shooters off the line all game long.
Veteran guard Nate Reinking — who, at 38, might have seen his last action for a national side that has still yet to qualify for an Olympiad (the host nation gets an automatic berth into the group stage) — hit four of them, while game-high scorer Keiron Achara (16 points, six rebounds, three blocks) and Kyle Johnson (nine points, two rebounds) each connected three times. Seven Brits scored at least eight points in the win; in an ironic twist, Britain's first and only victory of the group stage came in a game in which Mensah-Bonsu sat and stars Deng (six points on 3-for-11 shooting, four assists, three rebounds in a merciful 24 minutes) and Freeland (10 points, six rebounds and plenty of foul trouble, which limited him to just 10 minutes) were afterthoughts. The help came late for Britain's best, but at last, the cavalry arrived.
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China joins Tunisia as the only teams to finish pool play winless. But unlike the African upstarts who started so strong against the United States, led after one quarter against Argentina, and hung tough for three quarters against Lithuania, the Chinese squad can take precious few silver linings from its disappointing appearance. Lone star Yi Jianlian — whose Olympic trip began with such promise after bearing China's flag in the Opening Ceremony and scoring 30 points against the world's best frontline — ended quietly, with just 10 points on 2-for-7 shooting.
In the end, with his teammates offering precious little support — save for the sometimes-hot shooting of Wang Shipeng and a day-late-dollar-short 11 points against Britain from Wang ZhiZhi — the staggering amount of responsibility that Yi bore for his team's success proved to be too much. Yi was relied upon to battle the opponents' best frontcourt players by himself, produce one-on-one offense, serve as China's sole rim protector and clean the glass, and he served admirably, finishing pool play leading China in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, field goals made and attempted, and free throws made and attempted. But with so many jobs to do, he was never again able to produce at the high level he achieved during the Spain game.
But while the host nation of Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics heads home for a long look in the mirror and a trip back to the drawing board, the host nation of 2012 exits play with at least one victory, and a small piece of history under its belt. Cold comfort, to be sure, but that's better than no comfort at all.
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