This wasn’t a pretty game of basketball that was essentially saved from being a slugfest by three minutes or so of utter dominance by Ukraine early the second half.
Oleksander Lypovy took the honours of scoring Ukraine’s first ever points in a World Cup match with an early three, Pooh Jeter quickly followed up with another and he signalled his intent with a turn to the small but vocal group of Ukrainian supporters. The nerves on both sides was obvious. Sloppy passes, lax steps out of bounds, and needles fouls. Jeter however was calm as they come, driving through the lane midway through the frame for a powerful lay-up. Victor Liz responded in similar fashion, taking a bump but making a bucket. Turnovers were frequent, most of them unforced, and Ukraine suffered the worst of it. Juan Coronado gave the Dominican Republic their first lead of the game off a quick steal but no-one was going to open this game up in the opening 10 minutes. Orlando Sanchez ensured they kept that lead going into Q2 with a jumper on the buzzer to make it 13-12 to Dominican Republic at the end of the first.
Size however was starting to look like a big factor. The Dominicans were giving up fouls all over in the face of Ukraine’s muscle and the worry had to be whether they could keep up with their bulkier opponents. Slava Kravstov, who drew a foul off a robotic dunk attempt late in the first, looked far more fluid making a lay-up to put Ukraine back on top. The Dominicans by contrast were having to work hard for every shot. Orlando Sanchez pulled off a fantastic round the house lay-up while Jack Martinez hit a fadeaway that floored him to make the highlight reel but it was these kinds of move this team needed just to get work done inside. Defensively the Ukrainians were taking charge, all they needed to do was start making buckets more consistently, making 10 of 26 in the first half. Offensively they were a mess. Creating wasn’t the problem, Ukraine could make open shots but there was a hurried element to their game and Dominican Republic was able to stay alive on the scraps it was being served up the other end. A pair of Francisco Garcia threes got the crowd going. That Ukrainian D however wasn’t going to give up much more. Mike Fratello’s team had done enough to go in level 27-27 at the half.
It was a forgettable opening 20 minutes to the World Cup for both sides. The chance to hit the reset button was welcome and it was Ukraine who looked fresher upon the start of the second half, moving into a quick 11 point lead on the back of threes from Sergii Glady, Maxim Korninenko and Jeter. Orlando Antigua had to call time out barely two minutes after the resumption. Glady pushed Ukraine 41-27 in front with another three as the D kept on ticking. The Dominicans finally got their offence in the game midway through the quarter to cut the lead to 7 but that Ukrainian muscle was wearing them down. For every shot they made, the Dominican Republic seemed to give up a foul as Ukraine kept them at arm’s reach. At the end of the third, Ukraine led 48-40 and looked on course for the first win of the tournament in Group C.
Kravstov resotred the double digit lead to open the final frame. Having made their surge to start the half, Ukraine just needed to keep the scoreboard ticking over and let their defence take care of business at the other end. Dominican Republic, shooting 17 of 47 going into the last 10 minutes, had been through the wars and looked ready to rest up and prepare for Sunday. Fratello, who had stationary for the bulk of the game finally got animated as it hit the business end of proceedings. Having fixed all their ills at the half, Ukraine’s head coach didn’t want to let up down the stretch. Garcia and Edgar Sosa tried to rally the Dominican offence but the same problems kept plaguing them. With too much work required to make a shot, they were wearing low on energy and forced to foul or give up a quick score.
The result was expected but the nerves of both sides kept it in doubt for a while. This Ukraine team hasn’t been in a situation where it was favoured to win game at a major tournament all that often before. Having rode that underdog card all the way here, they survived their first test as favourites. One more win and they will almost certainly progress to the next round. Tomorrow they get their shot at Finland, where despite being favourites they will be more comfortable in front of a partisan crowd for their opponents.