Box score | Video interview with Coach Cal at the bottom
If you’ve followed John Calipari throughout his career, you know his teams are almost never out of it. Double-digit deficits and fourth-quarter holes just add to the legacy of his 500-plus on-court wins at the college basketball level.
On Wednesday, Calipari showed his late-game magic isn’t bounded by the United States’ borders. Leading the Dominican Republic National Team in its second game in the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship, Coach Cal’s team pulled off a 17-point second-half comeback to stun Venezuela 92-89 in Mar del Plata, Argentina.
As it turns out, the comeback wasn’t just any other come-from-behind win for Calipari. He was told after the game that it’s the largest comeback for the Dominican Republic in international play.
“To walk away and win that game was incredible,” Calipari said over the phone Wednesday. “Down by 17, to come back and win, anytime you do that it’s a good win.”
The Dominicans trailed Venezuela 49-41 at the half and 74-63 after three quarters, but Calipari’s team tightened up its defense and outscored the Venezuelans 29-15 in the final period. The victory essentially assures the Dominican Republic (2-0) will make it out of group play.
“We got beat to every loose ball in the first half and really into the third quarter,” Calipari said. ”We got beat on the backboard rebounding, which is supposed to be our strength. Our guards didn’t rebound any long rebounds, so we got down. And then, we went and became the aggressor and rebounded. We became the guys that got the loose balls.”
Dominican big men Al Horford and Jack Michael Martinez were once again the stalwarts behind the victory. Horford, a center/forward with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while Martinez recorded his second straight double-double with 18 points and 14 boards. The Dominican duo combined to go 13 of 18 from the field and 11 of 13 from the free-throw line.
Louis Flores added 15 points and Eulis Baez chipped in with 12 points. Oscar Torres paced the Venezuelans with 19 points.
A day after a dominating victory over Cuba, the Dominicans looked like they would suffer their first loss in the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship on multiple occasions. After a close first quarter, Venezuela heated up from the field and led by as many as 14 points in the second quarter.
The Venezuelans made 18 of their 33 first-half shots, a 54.5 percent clip, and at halftime it was evident Coach Cal was not happy with his team’s defense. The Dominican Republic tightened up on the defensive end in the second half, but the Venezuelans continued to increase the margin and led by as much as 60-43 with 7:38 left in the third quarter.
In the final period, Calipari’s team turned the game around with smothering defense and by taking the ball out of the hands of Greivis Vasquez (16 points) with continuous double teams. In the second half alone, the Venezuelans shot just 32.4 percent from the floor.
“We didn’t give them many offensive rebounds or free baskets,” the Kentucky basketball coach said. ”They got the one breakout late and there were a couple like that that kept the game close when it shouldn’t have been, but we’ve got to be the aggressor. We’ve got to play with desperation. If we don’t, we’re not that kind of team that can just turn it on. We’re scheming better defensively but we’re still not there.”
The Dominicans pulled within a point with five minutes left and took the lead for good at 83-82 with 4:24 left on a pair of free throws from Horford.
For the second game in a row, the Dominican Republic players looked comfortable in Calipari’s vaunted Dribble Drive Motion Offense. They hit 34 of their 71 shots overall (47.9 percent) and turned the ball over just four times.
“That’s a crazy number,” Calipari said. ”They played zone and didn’t come after us.”
Calipari said it’s the first time they’ve seen zone since arriving in South America, noting that they scored 46 points in the paint against it.
“I think teams will play more zone but I think it’s a dangerous thing because we’ll get better at it,” Calipari said. ”We haven’t played against zone and we really haven’t worked on it much. It’s one of those things where we really haven’t had time to. We’ve had three weeks. That was their way of beating us and they got beat.”
It’s still early in the tournament, but for a team that is still adjusting to its coach and his style, Calipari said it was the type of win that can build confidence for the rest of the tournament.
“It was a good thing,” Calipari said, “and we did it with Francisco (Garcia) and Charlie (Villanueva) not in at the end. I went with the guys that were doing stuff and those guys accepted it, so that was a good sign.”
Next up for the Dominican Republic is Canada on Thursday at 5 p.m. ET. Canada’s first game is scheduled for Wednesday night against Group A favorite Brazil. Fans can watch the Dominican Republic-Canada game online at ESPN3.com.
The Dominicans beat the Canadians on a last-second shot in the Jenaro “Tuto” Marchand Cup last week, giving Calipari and his staff the first bit of scouting familiarity they’ve experienced since their trip to South America.
“We’ll watch them again tonight,” Calipari said. ”We’ve changed a lot of stuff from Brazil and so has everybody else, so it will be interesting to watch. We got up 15 or 16 on them last time and then we just stopped playing.”
The Dominicans will play at least four games through Sept. 2 in group play before the knockout round begins. The tournament championship is Sept. 11.
The top two teams from the tournament will earn automatic bids to the 2012 Olympics in London. The third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishers will earn a trip to the last-chance Olympics qualifying tournament held in July 2012, just before the London summer games.
Video interview courtesy of Entrevista