Ginobili leads Argentina to victory


SENDAI — Argentina, Nigeria and Lebanon all scored victories in Group A action on the opening day of the FIBA World Championship here on Saturday.

Defending Olympic champion Argentina, led by shooting guard Manu Ginobili, capitalized on the absence of France’s Tony Parker, who was ruled out of the tournament on Friday with a broken index finger on his right hand, by posting an 80-70 victory before a crowd of 5,200.

The much-anticipated showdown between the two backcourt teammates on the San Antonio Spurs got shortcircuited on the eve of the event when France was forced to drop Parker — an NBA All-Star this season — after he injured himself in a warmup game against Brazil in China earlier this week.

Ginobili — an NBA All-Star in 2005 — scored a game-high 25 points, and got support from fellow NBA player Andres Nocioni (of the Chicago Bulls), who registered 18, as Argentina put away the French with good ball movement and physical defense.

France, which boasts five NBA players on its roster, was led by forward Florent Pietrus, who scored 15 points off the bench.

Ginobili clinched the game for Argentina with a beautiful move, dribbling behind his back to move away his defender and then draining a fadeaway 3-pointer from the top of the key with 37 seconds remaining.

“We won because we have Manu Ginobili, who makes big shots for us,” said Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez.

Hernandez credited France, which used a swarming zone defense in the final quarter, for pushing his team despite playing without Parker.

“We were playing calmly against the man-to-man defense, but when they changed to the aggressive zone we started taking bad shots and making mistakes,” he said.

Serbia and Montenegro, the defending world champion (having won the 2002 title in Indianapolis playing as Yugoslavia), was beaten 82-75 by upstart Nigeria in the day’s second game. Missing sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic and several other players from its championship team, Serbia and Montenegro, which failed to qualify for the tournament but gained entry as a wild card, battled gamely but could not overcome the energy and spirit displayed by Nigeria.

Time and again, Nigeria repelled comeback attempts by Serbia and Montenegro to notch the surprising win. Nigeria controlled the pace of the contest with speed and agility, converting one clutch shot after another on the way to victory.

Swingman Ime Udoka, who played for the New York Knicks last season, sparked Nigeria with a team-high 18 points, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

“We stuck to our game plan,” Udoka said. “We knew we were the quicker team. They were bigger, but we got the job done.”

Ebe Eri, a guard who plays for Belgium’s Liege, added 15 points for Nigeria in the win.

Guard Igor Rakocevic, who played one season in the NBA, and now suits up for Real Madrid, paced Serbia and Montenegro with a game-high 20 points.

Darko Milicic, the only NBA player on the Serbia and Montenegro roster, started at center but tallied just five points and five rebounds in the loss.

Nigeria’s American coach, Sam Vincent, himself a former NBA player, was very pleased with his team’s performance.

“Defense was our main ingredient. We kept a big, strong team under 80 points,” he said.

Vincent credited his squad’s recent training camp with Hakeem Olajuwon, the Nigerian former NBA star, in Houston.

“That time with Hakeem — one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players ever — gave us a lot of confidence. I think the players really benefited from it,” Vincent said.

In the opening game, Lebanon beat Venezuela 82-72 behind 35 points from swingman Fadi El Khatib. Center Joseph Vogel, who was born in the United States but has Lebanese citizenship, added 26 points in the victory.

Amazingly, El Khatib and Vogel were the only two players to score in double figures for Lebanon in the win.

Tomas Aguilera led Venezuela with 18 points. Richard Lugo chipped in with 16 points and a game-high 13 rebounds for the South Americans.

“Obviously for our country this is a great victory,” said Lebanon’s American coach Paul Coughter. “At this time there is a black cloud over Lebanon. This is a ray of sunshine.”

On Sunday, Nigeria will play Venezuela in a 1:00 p.m. start, followed by Lebanon against Argentina, and France versus Serbia and Montenegro.