MALAGA, Spain — A Team USA win being considered an upset of any kind is virtually unheard of, but as far as the FIBA World rankings go, the underdog was victorious Sunday.
The American national team entered a friendly ranked No. 2 in the world, and defeated No. 1 Spain, 98-88, behind an exhibition-season high 21 points from Jalen Brunson and a big night from Jaren Jackson Jr.
Team USA may be 3-0 on this barnstorming tour headed toward the FIBA World Cup, but this was the first stuff test. They played in front of a boisterous, native crowd of 10,850 fans in Malaga, Spain, on the southern coast, in a tight affair in which the Spaniards briefly led in the fourth quarter.
Sure, there were some American fans sprinkled in here and there, but they weren’t the ones whistling at Team USA (that’s what fans in many of these other basketball countries do to taunt opponents or the refs), they certainly weren’t chanting “España” in unison, singing Spanish folk songs, or serenading Santi Aldama with “Al-dah-mah” cheers.
If there were about 11,000 people here, it sounded like twice as many, and it felt like many of them were on the court guarding the Americans in the third quarter when Team USA blew a 10-point halftime lead and committed seven turnovers.
Jackson Jr. finished with 14 points (rebounds and blocks were not immediately available at press time) and gave Team USA the lead for good with 9:35 left on an and-1. Anthony Edwards, the Americans’ leading scorer through two games, scored seven of his 11 points in the final frame, and Mikal Bridges contributed five of his 12 points in the fourth.
(and hey, Spanish and American fans alike all sang “Sweet Caroline” after the game was over, like it was Fenway Park.)
Aldama, of the Memphis Grizzlies, scored 14 points for Spain while Juancho Hernangomez, who was in the NBA last season with Toronto, scored 10 points.
How did Spain become No. 1?
From the summer of 2019 through this month, Team USA has finished seventh at the World Cup in China and won gold at the Tokyo Olympics with NBA talent. Then, USAB finished third at the AmeriCup, a tournament of countries from North America and South America, and lost two games in the 2023 World Cup qualifying rounds with G Leaguers and former pros.
Spain, meanwhile, won the 2019 World Cup, fell to the Americans in the Olympic quarterfinals, and then won EuroBasket last year.
Since 2017, FIBA has ranked teams based on a weighted system of games and victories, and results stay with teams for six years.
Team USA leaves Spain Monday for Abu Dhabi and two more exhibition games, against Greece and Germany.
This story will be updated.
(Photo: Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty Images)