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Daily News photo by BILL KISER  

USVI v Venezuela

U.S. Virgin Islands guard Walter Hodge, left, drives for a layup while guarded by Venezuela’s Heissler Guillent, right, during the first half of their Americas Qualifiers group-play game Dec. 3 at the UVI Sports and Fitness Center on St. Thomas. The USVI National Team will face Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the United States in group-play games at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.

USVI men have tough draw in return to Games

Walter Hodge isn’t a stranger to playing international competition with the U.S. Virgin Islands’ senior men’s national basketball team.

But Hodge admits that what the USVI National Team has gone through the last three years isn’t quite at the same level as the 2019 Pan American Games.

“It’s a great experience to be here,” said Hodge, a member of the U.S. Virgin Islands senior men’s team since 2009. “The first three games are really tough … but we’re here to fight and get wins, and try to play for a medal.

“The last three years, we’ve been close to reaching the medal stage, but we’ve fallen short. We just need to play our kind of ball, to play for each other and put ourselves in the right position to win games.”

The U.S. Virgin Islands opens group play in the Pan Am Games’ eight-team tournament today against the vaunted United States squad, the world’s top-ranked team. They also have group-play games scheduled against regional basketball powers Puerto Rico (16th in the FIBA rankings) on Thursday and Venezuela (No. 20) on Friday.

In fact, five of the teams in the Pan Am Games — Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela — will go right from Peru after the games to China, where the FIBA Basketball World Cup will be played from Aug. 31-Sept. 15.

“A lot of the teams bring their main guys,” said Hodge, who played for the University of Florida when it won back-to-back NCAA Tournament titles in 2006 and 2007. “Venezuela will bring the same team that will play in China and so will Argentina. Only a few teams will bring young guys so they can get experience.

“It will be a challenge for us, but we think we can compete with everybody. At the end of the day, we can’t have any excuses; we’ve got to play hard and do our best.”

The U.S. Virgin Islands — No. 51 in the latest FIBA world rankings — qualified for the Pan Am Games by finishing fourth in the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup tournament in Colombia.

This will be the USVI’s sixth appearance in the Games, but their first since 2003.

That means all of the players on the USVI’s squad were teenagers or younger when the last time a team from the territories took part in the quadrennial Games.

“We feel great,” said Georgio Milligan, a member of the USVI National Team since 2015. “Our chances are pretty high. A couple of the top teams we’ve already played in other FIBA tournaments, so we’re familiar with them.”

But the United States team the U.S. Virgin Islands will face today doesn’t have LeBron, Steph Curry or Coach K on the sidelines, or even the G-League players that got the U.S. into the main draw of the FIBA World Cup.

Instead, the U.S. squad at the Pan Am Games is comprised primarily of college players from schools in the Big East Conference.

“At this stage, though, we’re not taking anyone lightly,” Milligan said. “We’re preparing as much as we can before the game. I can only speak for myself, but I’m not nervous; if anything, I’m excited. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers, and represent the Virgin Islands.”

To have a chance at a medal — the semifinals will be played Saturday, with the gold- and bronze-medal games Sunday — the U.S. Virgin Islands must win at least two of its three group-play games in order to advance.

The last time the USVI faced the United States, it came away smarting from a 90-62 loss in the 2017 FIBA AmeriCup semifinals.

However the U.S. Virgin Islands has had better success against one of its group-play opponents — they nearly beat Venezuela in a second-round FIBA World Cup Americas Qualifiers game in December, losing 77-76 in the final seconds.

“We are the smallest team in the tournament,” said USVI head coach William “Wilo” Colon.

“But if David can beat Goliath one time, it can happen again. All we need are two good miracles, and we’re in the money.”

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