Canada 95, Puerto Rico 89… 6’6″ Emanuel Miller authored one of the more storied games in a big spot in recent Canadian international basketball history while 6’3″ Andrew Nembhard (17 assists) continued his fine quarterbacking as Canada held off a scrappy, competitive Puerto Rican side to advance to tomorrow night’s FIBA Americas U-18 championship game.
While Canada also got a number of key, big plays from 6’6″ Addison Patterson and some solid work late in the game by 6’7″ Tyrese Samuel, Miller was the story, dominating the glass with 9 “o” boards, finishing with 31 points on 13-22 shooting and 14 rebounds total. Playing with a high motor in a big spot, Miller rescued several sluggish Canadian possessions keeping plays alive, slashing to the rim with 19 first-half points and even knocking down an important three midway through the fourth. While his perimeter skills can improve, Miller’s effort at both ends energized Canada and he was the difference tonight.
The slick Nembhard did not have his best scoring or shooting night but had to deal with extra attention including Puerto Rico’s second-half decision to trap every ball screen and was again virtually perfect with his transition decision-making. Coach Dave Smart adjusted to the double teams by moving 6’0″ Joel Brown to the point and running Nembhard off screens to some degree of success.
After a sluggish first three quarters – Brown picked up two first-half fouls and sat for a stretch – the lightning-quick lefty turned it up defensively in the final 10 minutes and finished the game for Canada, setting up Nembhard for a wide open three that would have given the home side a 14 point lead. But the shot rattled out and Puerto Rico made their final real run with quick back-to-back threes to get it back to 8.
But Patterson, like he has in spurts for most of the tournament, made a pair of game-turning plays, including leaving his man to jump and steal a cross-court pass and then hammering home a two-hander that gave Canada the momentum back and essentially sealed it. Patterson, who later got to the rim for a final “and 1″ on another big-time take, remains somewhat undisciplined on the defensive end and can over handle at times, but he has a baller’s instincts in big spots and again made important, winning plays when it mattered most.
Samuel contributed 11 points and 7 rebounds using his length and quick leaping ability, also making two big fourth-quarter free throws. Dripping with athleticism, the lanky forward remains a work-in-progress defending the low post and generally with his offensive decision making but tonight down the stretch his contribution was impactful.
Canada had several double digit leads but the gritty Puerto Ricans hung in with some deft three point shooting before Patterson, Miller and Nembhard put it away.
6’5” A.J. Lawson returned from his injury and sat for a spell in the first half with two fouls but still had 14 points in 27 minutes; his return to top form will likely be critical tomorrow night vs. U.S.A. as again Canada can really only count on six players to contribute (although 6’4″ Jahcobi Neath did get time tonight as a defensive specialist down the stretch).
But tonight belonged to Miller, who brought energy and made numerous big momentum-saving baskets and was also very humble and well spoken in a post-game interview.
The expected gold medal game between Canada and the USA is now a reality and the stage is set for, among other features, the point guard match-up between 6’2″ Cole Anthony (Bronx, NY) and Nembhard, the top two point guards in the tournament. Canada got some good news as Kentucky-bound and USA starter 6’3″ Tyrese Maxey is apparently out with an ankle injury but 6’4″ Quentin Grimes (Kansas), 6’9″ Matthew Hurt, 6’4″ Coby White (North Carolina) and young 6’8″ forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl are among the stars that USA Head Coach Bill Self has leaned on throughout the tournament.
Expect USA to try to take the ball out of Nembhard’s hands and try to expose Canada’s relatively weak inside game (Canada gave up 21 offensive rebounds and solid post players like 7’0″ Francisco Caffaro of Argentina and tonight Puerto Rico’s 6’7″ Jorge Torres (headed to Post University) gave the Canadians (ex-Miller) difficulty. Expect Canada to throw in some zone – which Canada used for 3-4 possessions tonight – and try to keep the Americans on the perimeter. Expect an athletic, up-tempo affair. Go Canada !