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Does Mali have one more surprise left to capture U19 World Cup throne?
HERAKLION (Greece) - Forty minutes stand in the way of Mali completing one of the most improbable runs in sports history or the United States reclaiming their throne atop youth basketball. Can the Americans win the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2019 Final or will it be Mali bringing their fairytale to a happy end?
Mali hope to end their unsuccessful history against United States
The Final in Heraklion could not have been any more unexpected, especially with Mali facing the six-time champs United States for the trophy. The Americans have long been the powerhouse in the competition and they were looking for redemption and returning to the top of the podium after suffering a painful loss to eventual champs - and FIBA Americas rivals - Canada in the Semi-Finals.
Little did Bruce Weber and his team realize that in order to finish the task they would have to fend off one of the most magical surprises in sports history.
It seems fitting that Mali's first-ever game in the U19 World Cup came against the United States on July 12, 2007 when the likes of Steph Curry DeAndre Jordan, Michael Beasley, Patrick Beverly and Johnny Flynn beat the debutants from western Africa 118-56.
Steph Curry when he was still Stephen Curry - at the U19 World Cup in 2007 against Mali
Not only have those Americans made their mark in the game of basketball, Mali got all grown up too - pulling off a run for the ages in reaching the Final in Heraklion after becoming the first African team to reach the Quarter-Finals of the competition then the first team from the continent to get to the Semi-Finals. And now this.
The United States faced Mali two summers ago as well, winning 117-69 in the Round of 16. Current Mali captain Martin Diakite was in that game and the other six that the Africans lost last time around in finishing 16th without a victory to their name.
Things have gone entirely differently for Mali, who are the reigning U16 and U18 African champions and making their third appearance in the competition. Alhadji Dicko and his men shrugged off not having probably their best player for the start of the tournament - Oumar Ballo was stuck in Mali with a visa issue - and won the first two games against Europeans Latvia and reigning champs Canada. Mali dropped their third game - on a late three-pointer to Australia - but then got through New Zealand, Puerto Rico and France in the Knockout Phase to reach the Final.
The United States have never really been challenged all tournament with wins by 40 points, 18, 29, 50 and 15 before cruising past Lithuania by 35 points in the Semi-Finals to advance to their ninth Final in 14 editions.
.@CadeCunningham_ with eyes in the back of his head for the spectacular dime to @_r1bang_! 👀 #FIBAU19— FIBA (@FIBA) July 6, 2019
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Facts to know: United States lead the competition in scoring (102.2 ppg), field goal shooting (48.4 percent), assists (28.7) and steals (12.8), are second best in turnovers committed (13.5) and third in blocks (6.0).
Mali are fourth-worst in field goal shooting (37.6 percent), three-point shooting (27.5 percent) and free throw shooting (58.3 percent) and commit the sixth-most turnovers (16.5). But the Africans are tops in total rebounding (55.5rpg) and offensive rebounds (22.3 per game) and second in blocks (6.8).
.@usabjnt's 🇺🇸 @TyHaliburton22 drops the sweet dime to @jcrearl for the monster finish! #FIBAU19— FIBA (@FIBA) July 6, 2019
📝Follow the live blog: https://t.co/FjolLCaktK
📺 Watch live: https://t.co/30FM22MXOW pic.twitter.com/hDEo1ZaSB2
Matchup to watch: Tyrese Haliburton v Siriman Kanoute: The battle of point guards will go a long way in deciding this game. Haliburton has been great in directing traffic for the United States as well as pressuring the ball while Kanoute has been fantastic at times but also can play out of control. The Mali playmaker will need to really be on his game to withstand the relentless pressure the United States will undoubtedly unleash on the Africans.
They said it: "We have to play a really good game. We are really going to give a hard time to USA. We are not here to joke. We are here to show them and the world that we can play ball." - Mali center Oumar Ballo
"They have some size, some length, they play their butts off. They have the big guy inside (Oumar Ballo) and it seems when they can take care of the ball, they’re pretty good. We’re going to have to do a good job to match athleticism with athleticism and we have to stay in front of them with the dribble because they’re going to take you and get to the hoop. So we have to do a good job of staying in front of them." - USA coach Bruce Weber.