Nocioni nets 24 as Argentina rolls on


SENDAI — Andres Nocioni scored a game-high 23 points as Argentina clinched first place in Group A at the FIBA World Championship with a 98-64 victory over Nigeria on Wednesday.

The victory ensured the South Americans (4-0) a second-round game against the fourth-place finisher from Group B (Angola, Germany, Japan, Panama, New Zealand and Spain) on Saturday at Saitama Super Arena.

Nigeria fell to 1-3 with the loss.

Argentina, which once again put on a textbook display of the team concept by moving the ball around and repeatedly finding the open man, has won its four games by an average of just more than 26 points.

“This was an important game for us because we knew we could win the group,” said Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez. “Nigeria played hard and switched defenses on us with did not make it easy.”

Nocioni, who sprained his left ankle in Monday’s victory over Venezuela, benefited from Tuesday’s rest day, starting and shooting a perfect 9-for-9 shooting from the field.

Nocioni, who plays for the Chicago Bulls, was 5-for-5 from 3-point range and 4-for-4 on 2-point attempts in just 17 minutes of action.

“I don’t ever recall having a game like this — where I didn’t miss a shot — for the national team,” the 202-cm forward said. “My ankle felt great and I played well.”

Despite the one-sided triumph, Nocioni was cautious about putting too much into the win.

“We are playing with a lot of confidence and winning, but in a competition like this you can’t look too far ahead,” he said. “I can’t say yet that we are the team to beat.”

NBA star Manu Ginobili was stellar again for Argentina, scoring 20 points on 7-for-9 shooting from the field despite playing just 16 minutes in the win.

Argentina, which shot 56 percent from the field, led 41-30 at halftime, then boosted the advantage to 73-47 at the end of three quarters.

Argentine super sub Walter Hermann showed once again that he knows how to find the basket, leading all reserves in the contest with 12 points. Hermann will sign a contract with the Charlotte Bobcats.

Forward Gabe Muoneke was the only Nigerian to score in double figures, netting 10 points. Teammate Aloysius Anagonye pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds.

Nigeria coach Sam Vincent noted that Argentina’s team players know each other well.

“You have to give them credit,” he said. “These guys have been playing together for a long time — since they were in juniors.”

Serbia and Montenegro, the defending world champion, evened its record at 2-2 and virtually assured itself of a place in the second round by downing Venezuela 90-65 in the day’s second game.

Guard Igor Rakocevic led the way for Serbia and Montenegro, scoring 26 points, with 21 of them coming in the first half.

Center Darko Milicic, who plays for the Orlando Magic, had his best game of the tournament, scoring 18 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking six shots in the win.

Venezuela slipped to 1-3 with the loss.

“This game was over in the first quarter,” said Serbia and Montenegro coach Dragan Sakota. “Milicic was controlling their best player (Richard) Lugo. That was the key.”

Starting power forward Ognjen Askrabic departed with a twisted left ankle in the first half and did not return for the winners. He is listed as doubtful for Thursday’s final group game against Argentina.

Victor Diaz scored 11 points for Venezuela in the defeat, while Lugo hauled down a game-high 13 rebounds.

In a spirited battle in the evening game, Fadi Le Khatib poured in 29 points as Lebanon outlasted France 74-73 after blowing a big lead.

The victory keeps Lebanon (2-2) in the hunt to for a second-round berth and throws the group into chaos, with three spots still up for grabs heading into the final day of first-round play.

France (2-2) trailed almost the entire way, but took a 72-71 lead on a pair of free throws by Laurent Foirest with 39.3 seconds left.

Joseph Vogel, an American with Lebanese citizenship, put in a jump hook and got fouled, then made the free throw with 23.8 seconds left to put Lebanon back up 74-72.

Boris Diaw, who plays for the Phoenix Suns, was fouled with 6.3 seconds remaining and went to the line with a chance to tie it up, but could make only one of two. France got the rebound when he missed the second shot, and Foirest got off a 6-meter jumper from the baseline just ahead of the buzzer but it bounced off the rim.

“It’s a huge upset,” said Vogel. “But we still have to win tomorrow to advance.”

Diaw was high man for the French, who struggled from the field and shot just 37 percent, with 14 points.

Lebanon, playing without American coach Paul Coughter who stayed behind at the team hotel battling the flu, led 43-30 at the half.

France started the second half with an 11-0 run to trim the margin to 43-41, and trailed by four (53-49) heading into the fourth quarter.