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VIERNHEIM, Germany – The U.S. team fell to Serbia 78-68 Monday night but remained alive in the eight-team championship bracket at the 26th biennial Albert Schweitzer Tournament.

“We fell victim to their experience and ability to play together,” said U.S. head coach Butch Estes. “We knew they were good, and they were.”

Even so, the Americans led by as many as seven points in the first half before the Serbs began exploiting their year-round familiarity with each other, their height advantage and foul trouble on the part of the Americans. They tied the game at 36 at halftime, took the lead early in the second half and expanded it to as many as 14 points at times to the delight of a few dozen incessantly chanting, drum-beating, flag-waving Serbian fans.

Still, the 11 American teen-agers absorbed some important basketball life lessons along with the defeat, according to their head coach.

“These guys are juniors in high school,” Estes said. “They’re being exposed to a level of physicality and being asked to do more than they ever have before. They’ll take all this back to their schools for their senior years.”

Before they get back to school, however, the Americans have more business to take care of here. Despite Monday’s outcome, the Americans remained in the championship bracket of the event as part of a group with Pool D champion Spain, Pool C champion Serbia and Pool D runner-up Russia. Off Tuesday, the U.S. is to play Spain at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Russia at 6 p.m. Thursday. Both games are scheduled for the Waldsporthalle here, and the Americans need to finish first or second in the new pool to reach Friday’s semifinals.

Judging from their performance against Serbia, one of the world’s premier junior national teams, a berth in the semis isn’t all that far-fetched. The Americans led 27-20 in the second period Monday, then hit a lull that allowed the Serbs to come back.

“We rushed a couple of shots,” Estes said, “and that gave them an opening.”

Rushed shots generally are unmade shots, and against the tree-topping Serbs, maintaining possession after a miss is improbable. The American did grab 10 offensive rebounds, but were outscored on second-chance points 15-4.

The height differential showed up on the stat sheet in other ways, too. For the first time in three games here, the Americans found themselves out-rebounded, 42-34, and outscored in the paint, 34-26.

Despite the forest of Serbian big men inside, however, 5-11 U.S. point guard Stevie Clark of Oklahoma City didn’t hesitate to take the ball to the rack in an attempt to score or get to the line in trying to cut into the Serbian lead. He led the U.S. in scoring with 19 points and in rebounds with eight. He also led the team in a more unconventional form of rebounding, bouncing off Serbian bodies while putting up shots in the lane.

“It was an experience,” said Clark, who appeared none the worse for wear afterward. “But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Foul trouble also hamstrung the Americans – Austin Nichols of Memphis, Darryl Hicks of Louisville, Collin Hartman of Indianapolis and Deontaye Curtis of Hoover, Ala., each ended the game with four fouls.

“Once I got into foul trouble,” said Nichols who sank three baskets in the first 10 minutes, but was limited to two free throws the rest of the way, “it was hard to get back into the game.”

Nichols said the Serbian fans, who celebrated with their team at game’s end as though they had won the tournament instead of a mere pool-play game, had no effect.

“To be honest,” he said, “once I was in the game I didn’t even hear them.”

Nichols said Monday’s game also had its encouraging aspects.

“Coach told us before the game if we could beat them, we’d be able to beat anybody,” Nichols said. “We only lost by 10 points. Maybe we’ll see them again down the road.”

The box score:

Serbia 78, U.S.A. 68Pool play Monday at Viernheim, GermanySerbia .......17 19 21 21—78U.S.A. .......21 15 17 15—68Scoring—Serbia: Mihajlo Andric 23, Dusan Ristic 18, Nikola Radicevic 13, Marko Guduric 9, Nikola Milutinov 7, Luka Andusic 3, Nikola Cvorovic 3, Nikola Rebic 2; U.S.A.: Stevie Clark 19, Nicholas Smith 12, Derrick Walton Jr. 10, Austin Nichols 8, Derek Willis 8, Steve Haney Jr. 6, Darryl Hicks 3, Marki Bryan 2. Rebounds—Serbia 42 (Andric 9, Milutinov 7, Gunduric 5, Ristic 5); U.S.A. 34 (Clark 8, Collin Hartman 5). Assists—Serbia 13 (Radicevic 4); U.S.A. 9 (Hicks 3). Total fouls—Serbia 20; U.S.A. 24.

Quarterfinal pools

Group E—Italy, Germany, Turkey, France.Group F—Spain, Serbia, U.S.A., Russia.Top two in each group advance to Friday’s crossover semifinals at MWS Halle am Herzogenried, Mannheim.

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