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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

PR men’s basketball team is Olympics-bound after 20-year drought

Exactly 20 years after Puerto Rico shocked the world by defeating the United States in Athens, the men’s national basketball team is returning to the Olympics where they’ll share Group C with the U.S., Serbia and South Sudan in Paris.

By The Star Staff

Puerto Rico put the finishing touches on a dream week Sunday night with a historic 79-68 victory over Lithuania to win the 2024 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in San Juan and punch the last ticket to the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

The backcourt duo of José Alvarado and Tremont Waters led the way in front of 2004 legends such as Carlos Arroyo and an ecstatic crowd of 13,504 at José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum in Hato Rey as Team Puerto Rico qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 20 years.

“This game was everything we worked for,” said Alvarado, who was named both player of the game and tournament MVP. “For us, for the island, we knew it was more than basketball. We knew how great we had to be to represent this island. As a kid, I wasn’t born on the island so I’m learning so much about this game and the history that came with it. I’m just so happy to be a part of it. JJ [Barea], Carlos [Arroyo] and all those greats that were here created a path for us.”

Puerto Rico’s offense came in a series of potent waves throughout the game, starting with an 11-3 first-quarter lead before Team Lithuania gathered itself and evened things up at 19 apiece at the end of the opening frame.

Led by Waters, Puerto Rico then went on an 11-0 run in the second quarter to turn a 6-point deficit into a 37-32 advantage, and a 39-35 lead at the half.

Puerto Rico extended the lead to as many as 14 points in the third quarter and led by 12, 62-50, going into the final frame.

Lithuania hung around in the fourth quarter, cutting Puerto Rico’s lead to eight points, 76-68, on a 3-pointer by Marius Grigonis with 42 seconds left in a case of too little too late.

Alvarado, a 26-year-old from Brooklyn, set the tone for Puerto Rico throughout with suffocating defense, blinding speed and deadly accuracy from beyond the arc.

The New Orleans Pelicans guard scored 10 points in a key stretch of the third quarter when Puerto Rico took control. He finished with 23 points, 6 rebounds and 2 steals while shooting 9-for-14 from the field and 4-for-6 from outside the arc.

Waters, a standout for the Carolina Giants in the National Superior Basketball league (BSN by its initials in Spanish), scored 18 points, with 3 assists and a pair of steals. Jordan Howard (Manatí Bears of the BSN) added 12 points off the bench.

Lithuania was led by Rokas Jokubaitis (16 points and 3 assists), Domantas Sabonis (10 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks) and Edgaras Ulanovas (8 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 steals).

“We let this game get away from us,” Sabonis said. “We couldn’t find ways to score on the offensive end and especially get stops when we needed to.”

Puerto Rico managed to both play fast and under control, finding better ball movement in the second half and raining down a storm of three-pointers.

Nelson Colón’s squad shot 12-for-25 from 3-point range, and the boricuas also held their own on defense, limiting Lithuania to just 6 three-pointers and 42% shooting from the field overall.

“My 12 players, they’re the heroes,” Colón said. “We made history tonight. We beat two of the most powerful teams in the world here on our island and in front of our people because we believed and we prepared ourselves for this moment.”

Exactly 20 years after Puerto Rico shocked the world by defeating the United States in Athens, the boricuas are returning to the Olympics where they’ll share Group C with the United States, Serbia and South Sudan in Paris.

Lithuania has now missed the Olympics in back-to-back editions after having perfect attendance at the Games since regaining independence in 1991.

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