Beijing (AFP) - Yao Ming looked on helplessly and fans were left in tears as hosts China failed to progress to the second round of the Basketball World Cup with a 72-59 defeat to Venezuela on Wednesday.
In a do-or-die battle to reach the next stage, it was the South Americans who appeared to relish silencing a vocal, packed crowd at Wukesong Arena in Beijing.
Basketball, along with football, is the most popular sport in China. But that has failed to result in a top-class team and there is no current successor to trailblazer Yao.
The former Houston Rockets All-Star, now 38, took over as head of the Chinese Basketball Association in 2017 and set about reforming an entrenched state development system that he says badly needs an overhaul.
He might want to ramp up his development plan after this demoralising showing on home soil, with the Venezuela defeat giving China a record of one victory -- over the Ivory Coast -- against two losses.
Coach Li Nan said China never fully recovered from Monday's crushing 79-76 overtime defeat to Poland.
"We tried to get our mentality right, to play with confidence, but something was left over from that game," he said, calling the Venezuela defeat "a very tough loss".
Even neutrals had expected the hosts to successfully negotiate a weak Group A, where Venezuela joined Poland in the last 16, while a public of 1.4 billion was as expectant as ever.
China, ranked 30th in the world, placed their hopes largely on the shoulders of a towering front court of three seven-footers: Yi Jianlian, Zhou Qi and Wang Zhelin.
But the hosts were never really in the game against the sharp-shooting Venezuelans, ranked 20th, and China trailed a daunting 33-22 at half-time.
They made inroads on that deficit at the start of the third quarter and late in the fourth, getting within seven points, but the comeback fell short in front of the watching Yao and thousands of deflated red-shirted spectators.
Because of the format of the World Cup, China's tournament is not over and they will now need to rally themselves to compete in a low-key classification round with Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualifying in play.
"Venezuela are a very experienced team but we don't have time to dwell on the loss because we still have games to play," said Chinese guard Fang Shuo.
- Impressive Serbia -
Red-hot Serbia showed they -- not reigning two-time champions the United States -- are the team to beat with a 92-77 victory over Italy to top their group.
Gregg Popovich's Team USA were pushed to the limit on Tuesday before finally swatting aside 17th-ranked Turkey in overtime to labour into the second round.
Just 24 hours later Serbia showed the Americans how to do it against the Italians, ranked 13th, in a battle for supremacy in Group D with both teams having already stormed through to the next stage.
In the next round Italy and Serbia, who are the current Olympic silver medallists, will be in a group with Puerto Rico and Spain, who won Olympic bronze in 2016.
The Sacramento Kings pair of Nemanja Bjelica and Bogdan Bogdanovic roared to the fore for the Serbs.
Bogdanovic totted up a game-leading 31 points and five steals. Bjelica, a forward, had nine assists.
"He's a tough rock, tough kid, one of the toughest," said coach Sasha Djordjevic of the guard Bogdanovic.