Rick Pitino Gears Up for Puerto Rico’s Last Chance in the FIBA Americas Championship

Lead Photo: AP Photo/Julio Cortez via
AP Photo/Julio Cortez via
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On Sunday, the opening night of the second round in the FIBA Americas Championship closed out in historic fashion, as a record 14,400 spectators gathered in Mexico City to watch the host country defeat Puerto Rico in a thrilling contest. The Palacio de los Deportes was stacked with cheers when point guard Paul Stoll sank a dagger three-pointer and a pair of clutch free throws in crunch time to help Mexico clinch a 92-86 victory and remain undefeated in the tournament.

Earlier in the game, during a timeout, Stoll grabbed the playboard from Coach Sergio Valdeolmillos’ hands in an attempt to draw up a play. Valdeolmillos calmly took control of his team and countered with another option, but it was hard to imagine that happening on the opponent’s bench, where Hall of Famer Rick Pitino was manning the huddle. Pitino paced back and forth across the sidelines through all four quarters, showing genuine emotion, perhaps sensing that the game was in reach for the islanders.

#RickPitino #TeamPuertoRico #PRvsCanada #??vs?? #CopaTutoMarchand

A photo posted by José Maldonado (@jmaldonadomarrero) on

After being selected as the head coach of Puerto Rico’s national team back in March, Pitino has been forthright about his intentions. By embracing the challenge of merely reaching the Olympics in Rio, Pitino hoped to learn new ideas on both ends of the floor. In addition, his Louisville squad was granted the opportunity to scrimmage against Team Puerto Rico in Kentucky, garnering them solid experience against professionals.

“I’ve given up a couple months of my life,” Pitino recently told ESPN. “But it’s been a worthwhile experience. I’ve loved the ability to learn new things at this stage of my career. I’ll get another chance to take a vacation, but I might never get another opportunity like this.”

Pitino’s new charges responded on Tuesday with a tight 98-92 victory over the Dominican Republic. Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea paced Puerto Rico with 37 points, nine assists, and six rebounds. Barea’s masterful performance was reminiscent of his efforts in the 2011 NBA Finals, where he excelled on basketball’s biggest stage to claim a championship.

For Pitino, watching opponents like Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela up close has sparked improvements, particularly on the offensive end. Next up for Puerto Rico is a match against Panama, followed by a showdown with Uruguay. If Pitino can inspire the islanders to ramp up their defensive intensity, and Barea stays hot, Puerto Rico has a puncher’s chance to secure their spot in the semifinals.