In a year or two, Kenneth Lofton Jr. will watch as some of the players in the FIBA U-19 World Championship, including a few of his teammates, become NBA lottery picks.
There will be plenty of basketball in his future, as well, but there aren’t many 6-7, 275 pound forwards who customarily are prominent in the draft. But Lofton always will have this day: the day he became a world champion at the FIBA U19 World Cup, the day he was the greatest reason Chet Holmgren and Patrick Baldwin Jr. and the rest of these American teenagers prevailed.
Lofton scored 15 of his 16 points in the second half to help the U.S. overcome a five-point deficit — which was as large as eight in the third quarter — and secure an 83-81 victory over a talented and competitive France squad in Sunday’s final.
It was fitting that Gonzaga-bound forward Chet Holmgren and Purdue sophomore Jaden Ivey were called to the center-court podium following the game to select all-tournament awards. Each was a deserving member of that team. But it was bizarre to see Holmgren named as tournament MVP when Lofton had clearly been the team’s most exceptional and essential player in the tight victories over Canada in the semis and France in the final.
As if to signify the gold medal mattered most, Lofton stepped forward to the sideline to be the first player to congratulate Holmgren as he walked back toward his teammates.
The U.S. had won the past four finals it reached, including in 2019 when a team featuring Cade Cunningham and Jalen Suggs won the most recent championship. There hadn’t been a defeat at this stage since 2007, when a team that included Steph Curry and Patrick Beverley was unable to overcome Serbia’s homecourt advantage.
This became the fifth U.S. title at the U-19s since 2009, when Jamie Dixon — then at Pitt, now at TCU — coached Gordon Hayward, Klay Thompson and their teammates to gold. Dixon returned to run this team, and did it again.
The U.S. scouted France’s victory in the second semifinal on Saturday, so they knew the French owned a terrific backcourt of Matthew Strazel, Jayson Tchicamboud and Rudy Demahis-Ballou, in addition to what Victor Wembanyama might offer. In beating Serbia, though, Wembanyama was limited to 9 minutes and made no impact on the game because of foul trouble.
Over the first 20 minutes, however, the U.S. did not move the basketball as well as the French and thus was unable to put Wembanyama in as many vexing situations. The U.S. committed eight turnovers and shot only 38 percent from the field in falling behind by five at halftime. They’d won their previous six games in the tournament by an average of 34 points and never trailed at the half.
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Wembanyama played as if he was looking to make up for what occurred Saturday, and he also took on the challenge of facing Holmgren, the No. 1 American prospect. Wembanyama, who stands 7-2, scored 18 points in the first half, including two 3-pointers, and blocked four shots before the break. The Americans struggled to manage his astonishing length. He scored only four points after halftime, though, and fouled out with almost three minutes left.
Dixon insisted to his players they play through Lofton, even when he was defended by Wembanyama, who is 9 inches taller. Lofton used his patience, strength, understanding of the low post and unrelenting hustle to dominate the third and fourth quarters
He helped the team rally from an eight-point third-quarter deficit to tie the game at 59, and then in the final four minutes teamed with Holmgren to own the lane.
With the U.S. lead at only 77-74 in the fourth quarter, Lofton took a high-low pass from Holmgren and scored on a lefthanded power move. Lofton pulled a steal off Tchicamboud and Ivey turned that into a coast-to-coast dunk.
It couldn’t be easy, not against a team as terrific as France, but when a late 3-pointer from France cut the lead to two points with 29 seconds left, the Americans worked down to a late shot from point guard Kennedy Chandler. If France rebounded, it would have a chance to win or tie.
Lofton grabbed the ball.
About the only thing he did not seize on this afternoon was the MVP trophy.
The square gold medal hanging from his neck afterward would have to do.
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