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U.S. remains top of basketball world, capturing gold medal with victory over France

The triumph capped a tumultuous month, in which America's position as hoops kingpins was seriously questioned.
Image: Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant waves a United States flag as he celebrates with teammates after their win over France in Saitama, Japan.Eric Gay / AP

Kevin Durant scored 29 points, leading the United States to an 87-82 victory over France on Saturday, bringing home Olympic gold and re-establishing America's status as the world's pre-eminent basketball power.

Jayson Tatum added 19 points off the bench, helping propel America to victory at Saitama Super Arena and capping a tumultuous month when U.S. basketball superiority was seriously challenged.

And perhaps at least dented.

The first U.S. alarm bells were sounded on July 10 when Nigeria shocked Team USA, 90-87, in an exhibition game in Las Vegas. That surprising loss was followed two days later with another exhibition defeat, 91-83, to Australia.

Then the Americans fell, 83-76, in their pool play opener to France on July 25, before getting back on track with victories over Iran, the Czech Republic, Spain and Australia.

Evan Fournier of Team France handles the ball as Devin Booker plays defense on July 25, 2021 in Tokyo.Ned Dishman / NBAE via Getty Images

Durant said the bumpy road to gold made the final outcome all the more special.

“We had some unusual circumstances," said Durant, who now has three basketball golds. “We just fought through anything, 2 ½ weeks away from our families, basically in a bubble. So it’s definitely different so I'm glad we finished the job."

Durant has been at his best when Team USA has needed him the most, scoring 30, 30 and 29 points, respectively, in the past three gold-medal games.

Tatum, 23, recalled being a teenager, watching TV when Durant won gold in 2012 and Draymond Green captured his first Olympic championship in 2016.

"It’s an incredible feeling something you always dream about," Tatum said.

"I can remember being in high school watching these guys win a gold medal and to play alongside of them and win one in a climate like this — everything we went through not being able to bring our family, I know (son) Deuce is watching — so this is an amazing feeling.”

Before arriving in Japan, the United States had sent men's basketball teams to 18 Olympics games, capturing 15 gold medals.

The only times America has fallen short of gold were 2004 in Athens, 1988 in Seoul and 1972 in Munich.

The 1972 gold won by the Soviet Union has been largely discredited after the U.S.S.R. was inexplicably given multiple possessions to end the gold medal game, the last of which turned into a buzzer-beating hoop and a 51-50 upset over the U.S.

Team USA show their frustration to the decision giving the gold medal to the Soviet Union in at the Olympic games in Munich on September 10, 1972.NCAA Photos / via Getty Images

Saturday's U.S. win also brought a golden moment for the mother-son basketball duo of Pamela and JaVale McGee.

Pamela McGee was one of her generation's greatest players, winning national championships with the University of Southern California in 1983 and 1984 before capturing Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984.

She went on to play professionally, including in the WNBA.

JaVale McGee of the Golden State Warriors with his mother and Former WNBA player, Pamela McGee on June 8, 2018 in Cleveland.Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images

Team USA's backup center JaVale McGee has enjoyed a 13-year NBA career and earned three championship rings, playing alongside Durant with the Golden State Warriors in 2017 and 2018 and scoring a third title last year with the Los Angeles Lakers.

He now adds a gold medal to his trophy case to show off to his mother, who is alive and well.

The McGees are the 13th mother-son pair to both win Olympic medals, but the first Americans to do so.

They're also the second mother-son duo to win gold. The only other comparable pair is Valentina Rastvorova, who won in the 1960 women's team foil fencing for the Soviet Union, before son Yevgeny Grishin grabbed the ultimate prize in 1980 for water polo.

The U.S women play for basketball gold against host Japan at 10:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. Team USA, winners of 54 Olympic games in a row, is shooting for its seventh consecutive gold medal.