At the end of USA Basketball’s 92-86 victory over Canada in the FIBA U-19 World Cup semifinals, Purdue guard Jaden Ivey made sure to find Purdue center Zach Edey for a handshake. Not that Edey, who stands 7-4, is hard to locate.
Edey made the last step to the championship game a difficult one for the U.S., scoring 16 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and blocking three shots, but the Americans’ depth was the difference in reaching the final for the fourth time in the past five competitions.
Kenneth Lofton Jr., a relative unknown from Louisiana Tech, has started to make a name for himself in this event and made an enormous difference for the U.S. in its frontcourt battle against Edey. Although Lofton stands 9 inches shorter, he used his wide body and low-post skills to ring up 16 points, seven rebounds and a plus-13 rating in 21 minutes.
Lofton made several of the game’s decisive plays in the third quarter, when Canada rallied to cut its deficit to a single point after trailing by 13 early in the period. After Ivey drew and converted two free throws to extend that to three points, Lofton followed a miss by TCU point guard Mike Miles and made it 61-56. Later, Lofton converted a 3-point play to make it 67-59.
It got as close as a single basket again early in the final period, but Lofton’s miss from the left block was followed by Milwaukee-bound Patrick Baldwin Jr. for another 3-point play. When Miles rebounded and pushed into a fastbreak and finished a coast-to-coast layup, the U.S. again was back in front by a dozen.
Lofton, who is 6-7, 275 pounds, averaged 12.1 points and 7.5 rebounds in his first season at Louisiana Tech. He impressed ESPN basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla with his play at the trials, and obviously the selection committee that chose the team and the coaches who are using him for 17 minutes a game and getting 12.7 points, on average, in return.
Canada was the last team to beat the U.S. in this competition, when current Knicks wing RJ Barrett tore apart the U.S. defense in the semifinals. There was some pressure on the Americans because of that, and also because they’d played enough against Canada’s players to know how capable they are.
In the end, the final score made the game seem closer than it was, but it also was indicative of how hard Canada pushed to make this close. The Americans were up 20 with four minutes left and then chose to begin draining the clock. But the Canadians’ late push was similar to every other occasion in the game in which the U.S. had an opportunity to blow open the game as they had the previous five in Latvia, where their averaging margin had been 40 points. Michigan-bound forward Caleb Houstan was another significant factor for Canada, scoring 23 points.
There was a scary moment late in the game when Tennesee-bound point guard Kennedy Chandler drove into the frontcourt uncontested and tried to throw down a one-handed dunk, but he lost his balance and fell directly to the floor. Chandler grabbed his midsection in pain and was attended by USA Basketball staffers for several minutes before play resumed.
Coach Jamie Dixon of TCU made a change to the starting lineup, inserting LSU transfer Adam Miller at shooting guard. He scored eight points and passed for seven assists. Gonzaga-bound Chet Holmgren, the top prospect in the 2021 recruiting class, scored 12 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked six shots.
There were multiple sets of college teammates on opposite sides in the game. Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner scored 10 points and blocked two shots for the U.S. while future Blue Jays point guard Ryan Nembhard was essential to Canada’s competitive push, scoring 18 points and passing for six assists.
The U.S. will play France Sunday at noon. France features 7-2 Victor Wembanyama, touted as one of the most promising young prospects in the world. He is 17 years old and averaging 15 points and eight rebounds in this tournament, although he only played 9 minutes, because of severe foul trouble, in France’s comeback victory Saturday against Serbia. Much of the interior responsibility for France fell to Yvan Ouedrago, who played the past two seasons for Nebraska and transferred to Grand Canyon for the 2021-22 season. He scored 11 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.