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Soviets return to top of podium at 1974 World Cup in Puerto Rico

MIES (Switzerland) - The FIBA Basketball World Cup returned to the Americas in 1974 and for the second time, the Soviet Union won the title.

The achievement is one of FIBA's 90 iconic moments.

 The Soviet Union captured their second world title in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico hosted the event and went straight to the Final Round, along with 1970 World Cup winners Yugoslavia, a country that was also riding the high of a FIBA EuroBasket 1973 trophy win. 

The other 12 countries at the 1974 World Cup, which included former champions Argentina (1950), USA (1954) and Brazil (1959 and 1963) and the Soviet Union (1967), were drawn into three four-team groups, with a top two finish in each required for participation in the Final Round.

The Soviet Union arrived in the Caribbean just two years removed from their 51-50 title game triumph over the USA at the 1972 Munich Games, a stunning result as it was the Americans' first ever defeat in Olympic competition and it happened with Alexander Belov's winning basket at the buzzer.

USA protect the rim in their 115-94 victory over Canada in the Final Round of the World Cup

Yet the Soviets were also smarting from their failure to capture a ninth consecutive FIBA EuroBasket crown in 1973.

Belov, along with Modestas Paulauskas, Sergei Belov, Ivan Edeshko and Alexandre Bolshakov, were members of the Soviets' 1972 team that played at the 1974 World Cup while there were a host of new faces, including Alexandre Salnikov, a player that would lead them in scoring in Puerto Rico at 17.6 points per game.

"It seemed impossible for a team to change as much as radically as ours did in 1974, but I remember in that Soviet Union squad, we had a lot of character," Soviet Union captain Paulauskas said.

So with Yugoslavia and hosts Puerto Rico waiting in the Final Round, the powerhouse Soviets and title contenders USA got to work in the First Round and prepared to join them.

The Soviet Union, USA and Cuba finished first after winning all three games in Groups A, B and C, respectively, while Brazil (Group A), Spain (Group B) and Canada (Group C) progressed with 2-1 records and second-place finishes.

One of the Soviet victories was 140-48 over Central African Republic. The 92 points was a record margin of triumph at the World Cup.

Cuba clinched first place in Group C by the skin of their teeth because two of their wins were by just a single point - 61-60 over Czechoslovakia and 80-79 over Canada. In that second win, Alejandro Urgelles, one of Cuba's Bronze Medal Game winners from the 1972 Olympics, poured in 23 points. He ended up leading the team in scoring in Puerto Rico, averaging more than 20 points per game.

Canada and Cuba traded blows in the close game in the Group Phase, which Cuba won 80-79

Canada finished with a 3-6 record overall in Puerto Rico but, including that narrow defeat to Cuba, suffered three of their setbacks by a combined five points. Among their defeats was a 102-99 overtime loss to Yugoslavia, a result that eventually helped the Yugoslavians finish second behind the Soviets and ahead of the third-placed USA.

Mexico (1-2) and Central African Republic (0-3) were third and fourth in Group A and went into the Classification Round, along with Group B's Argentina (1-2) and Philippines (0-3) and Group C's Czechoslovakia (1-2) and Australia (0-3).

The spots on the podium were ultimately determined by the Soviet Union's showdown with the USA on the last day, with the Americans entering the contest after nine victories in as many games in Puerto Rico.

The Soviet Union fell to Yugoslavia, 82-79, in the Final Round but ended up winning the championship

"Of course we knew how good they were and what kind of opponents they were," Paulauskas said. "There was a real intensity to our practice because it was so difficult to play against the USA." 

On that last day of the competition, the Soviets won 105-94 over the Americans.

As Yugoslavia had prevailed in their battle against the Soviet Union, 82-79, and the USA had beaten the Yugoslavians, 91-88, the three teams had 6-1 records in the Final Round.

In the three-way tie, goal differential was used to determine spots on the podium. The Soviet Union were +8, Yugoslavia 0 and USA -8.