SENDAI — Luis Scola scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds as Argentina rallied to a 83-79 victory over Serbia and Montenegro on Thursday afternoon to finish with a perfect 5-0 record in Group A at the FIBA World Championship.
Argentina will play New Zealand, the fourth-place finisher in Group B, in a second-round match in Saitama on Saturday.
Trailing from late in the second quarter until midway through the fourth, Argentina put on a final surge to overcome the defending world champion and strong efforts from center Darko Milicic (24 points, 12 rebounds) and guard Igor Rakocevic (25 points).
Argentina was six points down, at 74-68, with 6:35 left but outscored its opponents 15-5 down the stretch.
The South Americans tied the game 74-74 with 5:50 left on two straight 3-pointers by swingman Carlos Delfino, who plays for the Detroit Pistons, then took the lead on a beautiful give-and-go move by Scola.
The forward took the ball on the left side of the hoop, passed to an open Delfino, then cut to the basket and received the ball back from Delfino and made a layup with 4:18 left to give Argentina the lead for good.
Delfino, who finished with 14 points in 18 minutes off the bench, said his team has many weapons in its arsenal.
“We have a deep team,” he said. “Today I had the opportunity and got good looks. Yesterday it was (Andres) Nocioni. Two days ago it was (Walter) Herrmann.”
In later action, Nigeria ran past Lebanon 95-72 and France beat Venezuela 81-61 to join Argentina and Serbia and Montenegro in the second round.
The victory gave France a 3-2 record, and second place in the group, while Venezuela finished 1-4.
Nigeria, third in the group, and Serbia and Montenegro advanced on head-to-head tiebreakers over Lebanon after all three nations finished with 2-3 records.
In the first game of the day, the Serbs led 41-40 at halftime, then stretched their advantage to 66-61 after three quarters, but could not close the deal.
Argentine NBA star Manu Ginobili tallied 13 points in 23 minutes in the victory. Fellow NBAer Andres Nocioni added 12 points, while Pepe Sanchez had a game-high 10 assists.
The winners shot only 41 percent from the field, but they won the battle of the boards (39-30).
Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said poise played a key part in the victory.
“We turned it on in the fourth quarter,” he said. “I told my players to be calm and play with confidence. Our strategy was to let Milicic and Rakocevic score a lot and control everybody else, and it worked.”
Hernandez summed up his squad’s performance in its five first-round games, and the road ahead, succinctly.
“We play aggressive, smart, and have great chemistry,” he said. “But now a new championship begins and we have to start all over.”
In the second game, Ebi Ere led six players in double figures with 19 for Nigeria, and Ime Udoka had 10 points, nine assists and seven rebounds as the African nation halted a three-game losing streak with the win over Lebanon.
Rony Fahed scored 23 for Lebanon in the loss. Lebanon’s American coach, Paul Coughter, missed his second straight game with a pulmonary infection. Assistant coach Khalaf Koussay, who hails from Iraq, ran the team again in Coughter’s absence.
In the final game of the group, France took control early and cruised past Venezuela behind 19 points and eight rebounds from Florent Pietrus. Boris Diaw chipped in with 11 points.
French coach Claude Bergeaud was content with his team’s showing.
“We played good defense and rebounded well tonight,” he said. “It is a good result for us to finish second in the group.”