The aura of invincibility that USA Basketball usually enters the Olympic Games with is all but shaken after Team Naija beat the U.S. 90-87 on Saturday, July 10. Team USA was not expecting to open its Olympic summer with a historic loss to Nigeria. This international shocker, pulled off by the Nigerian’s team roster primarily filled by little-known African players and a handful of NBA players of Nigerian descent, has the hoops world talking, especially since Team U.S.A.’s NBA All-Stars—Kevin Durant, Bam Adebayo, Damian Lillard, and Jayson Tatum, to name a few—have max-contracts and still came home with a historic L.
The U.S. had lost 11 games before Saturday in major international play—Olympics and World Cups mostly—since NBA players began filling the American rosters with the Dream Team in 1992, with none of those losses against Africa—until now.
“We just wanted to compete,” said Nigeria’s Gabe Nnamdi, who goes by Gabe Vincent when playing for the Miami Heat. “We know what USA Basketball means around the world and what they’ve stood for so long.”
“I thought that the Nigerian team played very physically, did a great job in that regard and knocked down a lot of threes,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said. “Give them credit.”
Nnamdi led Nigeria with 21 points, while Caleb Agada scored 17 points and Ike Nwamu added 13. The team, as a whole, outscored the U.S. 60-30 from 3-point range.
On the USA Basketball side, Kevin Durant, who had never before played in a loss in 39 senior international games, had 17 points. Boston Celtics point guard Jayson Tatum added 15, while Portland Trailblazer guard Damian Lillard had 14 and Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo put up 11. “Just goes to show that we have to play better,” Tatum said.
In Team USA’s last three Olympic seasons—including pre-Olympic exhibitions—they had beaten Nigeria by a combined 127 points in their last two meetings, one at the 2012 London Games, the other a warm-up for the 2016 Rio Games. Nigeria had lost to the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics by 83 points and then lost to the Americans again four years later in an exhibition by 44 points.
Not this time though.
“Nigeria’s come a long way with their basketball,” Jerry Colangelo, longtime managing director of USA Basketball said.
And while this exhibition game doesn’t mean much when it comes to standings, the loss does give Team USA some pause before heading into official matches and a huge boost of confidence to Team Naija. “It’s a good win for us,” Coach Mike Brown said. “I don’t think any African team has been able to beat USA Basketball in an exhibition game or a real game. … We’re trying to get a little bit of momentum for Nigeria and for the continent of Africa.”
The U.S. led 43-41 at the half, then pushed the lead out to 52-43 early in the third. But the Nigerians connected on 3s on their next three possessions—Vincent, Achiuwa and Nwamu all connected—and just like that, the game was tied. Achiuwa took one 3-pointer all season with the Heat. In the Olympic exhibition, he doubled-up, as did Miye Oni, who made two 3s in the fourth quarter, including the one that put Nigeria up for good with 6:08 left.
Oni averaged all of 1.9 points per game this past NBA season for the Utah Jazz, and in this game he made two enormous buckets late Saturday to help seal the U.S. fate.
“We kept the game simple,” Gabe Nnami said, “and came out on top.”
The historic win caused Twitter to share its excitement over Team Nigeria toppling Team USA. You can read some of the reactions below.