MANILA, Philippines (AP) — No Nikola Jokic, no problem. Even with its best player sitting out this summer, Serbia is going to play for gold at the Basketball World Cup.
Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 23 points and Serbia defeated Canada 95-86 in the World Cup semifinals on Friday. Ognjen Dobric and Nikola Milutinov each scored 16 for Serbia, the best-shooting team so far in the tournament — making 55% of its shots coming into the day, then connecting on 62% to end Canada’s hopes of gold.
“It doesn’t matter who’s not here,” Serbia’s Marko Guduric said. “It’s all about this group of guys, whoever is here, whoever is wearing this Serbian jersey. We never give up. We fight until the end. It’s in our blood.”
Serbia (6-1) is in the World Cup final for the second time in the last three tournaments. It lost to the U.S. in the 2014 final, and will face either the Americans or Germany on Sunday night in the title game at Manila.
“Nobody believed but we didn’t care about anybody,” Serbia forward Filip Petrusev said. “We just had fun with each other. It’s a great group of guys, great chemistry, and when you have good chemistry and great players, anything can happen. We believed and we’re here.”
RJ Barrett scored 23 for Canada (5-2), which was bidding to make the World Cup final for the first time. It’ll face the Germany-U.S. loser for the bronze on Sunday, when the Canadians will try for their most significant international medal since winning silver at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
“Credit to Serbia. They played a great game,” Barrett said. “They played hard, they played physical, they’re very well-coached and disciplined. Got to give them credit for that.”
Dillon Brooks scored 16 for Canada and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 15 — 10 below his tournament average entering the day.
“I’m proud of my guys,” Canada coach Jordi Fernandez said. “It was not perfect. We were OK offensively. We were atrocious defensively. When a team shoots 62% from the field and 45% from 3, obviously something was not done well and we didn’t prepare well enough for the game.”
Jokic decided not to play this summer after leading the Denver Nuggets to the NBA championship back in June, giving himself time to rest before the looming title defense. Serbia moved on, and then had to regroup again in this tournament after the shock of losing reserve forward Borisa Simanic after he wound up needing a kidney removed after getting elbowed in a game against South Sudan.
Come Sunday, they’ll have a medal anyway. Gold or silver, that’s the only question.
“I want to dedicate this win to him,” Guduric said of Simanic, who remains in a Manila hospital. “Hopefully, we’re going to see him soon with us, with the team. Just want to say that hopefully he feels a little bit better when he knows he has a medal. I know it’s not important, but I hope we made him happy tonight.”
Canada started the tournament with an emphatic 95-65 win over reigning Olympic silver medalist France, and had the second-lowest odds — behind the U.S. — of winning gold. But it got into a slew of foul trouble early Friday, which kept the defense from getting on track, which in turn kept the offense from getting easy baskets.
And Serbia feasted off all of that. Serbia’s lead was 52-39 at the break, and by then Canada — which lost the lead for good after Gilgeous-Alexander picked up his second foul with 3:27 left in the first, and had all five of its starters with two fouls by halftime — was fuming over the foul situation. The fuming eventually tapered off, but Canada never got the lead back.
Canada ended up called for 25 fouls to Serbia’s 22, and actually shot more free throws than the winners — 27-20.
“I think we lost because we didn’t defend. I’ll leave the officiating for whoever judges the officials,” Fernandez said. “I can only say to them thanks for doing their jobs. Without officials we couldn’t play the game of basketball.”
Serbia led by 15 late in the half. That was the biggest deficit Canada had faced yet in this tournament; it faced 12-point deficits against Latvia and Spain, rallying to win both times.
Not this time, though. Serbia wouldn’t give the lead up, and Canada’s only medal hope now is bronze.
“I know these guys will do whatever it takes to go get that medal,” Fernandez said.