Semi-Finals preview: Spain hope to exorcise demons vs France, can Lithuania shock USA?
MALAGA (Spain) - Sixteen teams came to Spain dreaming of winning the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2022 and now four remain as we have reached the Semi-Finals. The European trio of hosts Spain, 2018 finalists France and 2016 bronze winners Lithuania are the final teams hoping to end the undefeated reign of five-time champions United States.
The Semi-Finals have Lithuania taking on United States and then Spain battling France. Here a breakdown of the matchups.
Lithuania dream of ending USA's perfect history
A Semi-Final of a U17 World Cup can never be considered a David vs Goliath matchup but Lithuania knocking off United States would be one of the bigger upsets in the history of this competition - given the Americans have never lost in this event.
United States come into the game with a 42-0 record all-time as five-time champions in five editions, and Lithuania have reached the Semi-Finals for a third time, losing to Poland in 2010 and falling to Canada in the bronze medal game and then losing to United States in 2016 but bouncing back for bronze.
United States have not really been challenged in this tournament as they were in charge against Serbia in the Quarter-Finals before pulling away for good in the fourth quarter. Like United States, Lithuania are also undefeated in Malaga - though they surprised hosts Spain in the opening game and then defeated Poland in the Quarter-Finals.
This is the third matchup of these teams in U17 World Cup history. The Americans won 102-66 in the group stage in 2010, and then came the aforementioned Semi-Finals in 2016 when USA won 98-70. The teams did face off in a friendly on June 28 in the Americans' first game after arriving in Europe and Sharman White's USA team prevailed 71-61.
Numbers to know
United States have the number one offense in the competition, scoring 105.8 points a game while Lithuania have only tallied 77.2 points a contest. Lithuania will have to be extra special with the ball as the Americans are the top ball thieves with 16.6 steals per game while Lithuania commit the fifth-most turnovers at 18.0. Lithuania are one of the best rebounding teams in Spain with 52.0 boards per game. But USA is tops on the glass, including averaging 24.0 offensive rebounds.
Kepezinskas vs USA defense: Kristupas Kepezinskas will be challenged like never before as the Lithuanian point guard will be the main ball-handler against the Americans' suffocating pressure defense. If Kepezinskas can withstand the waves of defense coming at him then Lithuania might have a chance.
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Spain aim to exorcise Semi-Finals demons, France want second chance
Two European superpowers face off in the Semi-Finals in a game after which the losers will be absolutely shattered and the winners thrilled to get their much-awaited chance at a crown.
Reaching the Semi-Finals is nothing new for Spain, who got to the last four in three straight editions - 2012, 2014 and 2016. But the Iberians failed to come through all three times, falling to United States, Australia and Turkey, respectively. Spain then ended up empty-handed as they lost in the third place game all three times as well - defeated by Croatia, Serbia and Lithuania, respectively. That Lithuania game in 2016 at home in Zaragoza was the last time Spain had played in this event after missing out in 2018. And Spain are looking to exorcise those Semi-Finals demons.
France for their part have been on a mission all tournament and that was to get a second chance to face the United States in the Final - assuming that the Americans keep up their end of the bargain. The French want the repeat of the 2018 title bout when Killian Hayes, Theo Maledon and co. lost 95-52 in Argentina - albeit winning their first-ever U17 World Cup medal.
That 2018 silver is the only piece of hardware among these two huge basketball nations in this competition. The loser of this Semi-Final will be left heartbroken - thinking either not again, or we were so close.
These two countries that have faced off 65 times at a youth World Cup or youth European Championship dating back to 1964, but just once have they met at the U17 World Cup. That came in the 2014 Quarter-Finals, where Spain won 71-67 thanks to Sergi Garcia scoring 20 points. The teams did play a friendly in the preparations with Spain prevailing 64-62 on June 18.
Numbers to know
These are two of the top scoring offenses in the competition, France second at 92.6 points a contest while Spain have averaged a fifth-highest 81.4 points. Both teams are excellent from long range as France are tops in three-point shooting at 35.4 percent and Spain behind them one spot at 34.5 percent.
The key could be turnovers as France commit the fewest turnovers in the tournament at 11.0 per game while being second in steals at 13.0. Spain are just eighth in turnovers with 15.0 miscues per contest.
Mara vs Sarr - This game will feature two exciting 7-foot center prospects in Aday Mara of Spain and France's Alexandre Sarr. The Spaniard is shotblocking force in the middle who can pass the ball like a guard and also take his game outside. Sarr is an athletic big who can streak the basket and run the break and crash the offensive glass with his athleticism.