Unforgettable run with Dominican Republic adds to legend of coach Che Garcia
MAR DEL PLATA (Argentina) - Twice in eight years, Nestor "Che" Garcia has taken a national team to an improbable, emotional, earth-shaking victory.
The most recent was on Sunday night, five months after agreeing to return to coach the Dominican Republic for the second time since 2019.
Garcia engineered an unlikely, unforgettable 79-75 comeback victory on the last night of the Americas Qualifiers for the FIBA Basketball World Cup against his former team, Argentina.
The triumph at Polideportivo Islas Malvinas in Mar del Plata clinched a spot for the Dominicans in this year's World Cup, which tips off on August 25 in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia.
In 2015 at the FIBA Americas Championship in Mexico City, Garcia had a celebration that was every bit as sweet. Then, he coached Venezuela to a 79-78 Semi-Final upset triumph over a Canada team that had beaten it by 20 points just eight days before.
Winner at the AmeriCup 2015
That victory catapulted Venezuela into the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Garcia then coached it to a 76-71 victory over Argentina in the Final.
In his time as Venezuela coach, Garcia forged a strong connection with the players. They shared in his belief that Venezuela could not just slay giants in the Americas but reach the Olympics.
With Garcia making the right decisions in the big moments, and motivating the players, Venezuela got hot in Mexico City and made it to Rio.
Second successful World Cup Qualifiers campaign with Dominican Republic
When the Dominican Republic put Garcia in charge of the team for the 2019 World Cup campaign, he guided it to rousing victories over Jordan and Germany.
The Dominican job the second time around has been tougher, more complicated. He had to get the team to the World Cup, and it was not in a strong position to do make it.
The top three teams in each of the two Second Round groups, and the best fourth-placed team, would qualify. The Dominican Republic had a 5-3 record and was below Canada, Argentina and Venezuela in Group E.
Yet after all the games had been played, Garcia's Dominican Republic was second only to Canada in the group at 9-3, ahead of third-placed Venezuela and fourth-placed Argentina, who were both 8-4.
Against all odds
In his press conference remarks immediately after the qualification, Garcia said reaching the World Cup was harder than everyone had envisioned before the First Round games.
"It is very difficult to qualify for a World Cup," he said. "Before starting the Qualifiers, the mathematics indicated that with eight games you would qualify and with seven you could be fourth, but everything became so even."
So when he was put in charge of the Dominican Republic, Garcia believed the country had to get wins in all four remaining games. They had to twice beat Argentina, the team he had coached earlier in the Qualifiers to a 6-2 record before they parted ways after a 95-77 victory over the Bahamas on August 29, in Mar del Plata.
Garcia, in his second game of the Dominican team in the Qualifiers, led them to victory over his old team, Venezuela
The Dominicans also had to defeat his former team, Venezuela, and Panama.
They did. With Garcia at the helm, the Dominican Republic won all four games. The manner in which they beat Argentina the second time, on Sunday, illustrated Garcia's coaching talents more than the other three wins.
The Argentina fans watching in Mar del Plata, or on television, as the third quarter neared its end, probably thought their team would win the game and make it to the World Cup. Leandro Bolmaro's three-pointer with 2:25 left in the frame gave Argentina a 61-44 advantage.
The Dominican Republic had other ideas.
They shared their coach's faith
Los quisqueyanos kept hustling. They kept diving for loose balls, challenging for rebounds. They kept the pressure on and, like Garcia, they kept believing.
Jean Montero, just 19 years of age, scored nine points over the next two minutes to help the Dominicans close the gap to 61-54.
Argentina stretched the lead back to 64-54 at the end of the third quarter, yet by this time, all was going according to Garcia's plan.
"Our mentality was different when we entered the last quarter," Montero said. "We knew that we weren't going to tie the game in a single possession, so we had to work on it. Coach told us the last three minutes of the game would be key and that's what happened."
Montero buried a three-pointer with 2:41 left to cut Argentina's advantage to 71-69, and Eloy Vargas tied the game at 71-71 with a dunk.
After Gabriel Deck scored for Argentina, Montero pulled the Dominican Republic level again at 73-73 with a turnaround jumper only 1:19 from the end.
The visitors took the lead for good when Andres Feliz stole the ball from veteran guard Nicolas Laprovittola and passed ahead to Victor Liz, who made a layup with 57 seconds left.
The Dominican Republic closed out the victory, giving Garcia his second win over Argentina in the Americas Qualifiers.
"COACH TOLD US THE LAST THREE MINUTES OF THE GAME WOULD BE KEY AND THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED"
Garcia's planning for the game had been meticulous, even setting a target for the number of points his defense could allow Argentina to score if the Dominicans were going to prevail.
"We had set an aim of allowing no more than 75 points to have a chance of winning here and we were there," he said. "We're very happy that we're going to a World Cup, that is the most important thing."
2014, 2019 and now 2023
The Dominican Republic clinched a spot at the World Cup for the third consecutive time, something that didn't seem likely before the penultimate window.
"The victory against Germany at the World Cup was considered the most important in (Dominican) history, but now, winning here is the most outstanding and this generation did it," Garcia said.
Garcia coached the Dominican Republic to a 70-68 upset victory over Germany at the 2019 World Cup
Garcia has cemented his reputation as a brilliant motivator and coach.
Now he's just months away from writing another chapter in his national team coaching career with the Dominican Republic set to play at the World Cup.