|Dario Saric and Filip Bundovic fouled out and hat to watch the final moments of the game from the bench but saw Croatia prevail in a hard fought nailbiter |
by Yarone Arbel
A piece of history took place at the U16 European Championship as Croatia reached the title game after an 86-82 win over Spain in the First Semi-Final at Sports Hall Topolica in Bar, Montenegro on Saturday evening.
This is the first time since 1995 Croatia will win a medal in the U16 European Championship, as back then EuroBasket star Nikola Vujcic led his team to the gold medal over Spain.
Today the Spaniards were the hurdle in the semi's and Croatia managed to survive it after Spain almost made yet another shocking comeback from nowhere, this time to just almost win the game.
With 2:09 to play the Croats took a 12 point lead, but saw Spain cut 11 off it in 76 seconds and enter the last 53 ticks down just by a point.
Spain also had the ball to tie and even take the lead inside the last 22 seconds but Alberto Diaz missed two shots that danced on the rim before falling out, and allowed Croatia to finally decide it.
One more big night for Saric finished a bit too early as he fouled out with 2:51 on the game clock and his team up by a comfortable 13, but Spain saw the oppotunity and started to pressure the ball to make one big almost.
Saric finished with 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists followed by Mislav Brzoja with 17, Martin Junakovic who added 15 and Karlo Lebo with 12 points, six boards and two huge blocks.
Josep Perez was the top scorer of Spain with 26 points, Javier Marin added 12 and Albert Homs stopped at 11.
"This is a great day for Croatian basketball, and already few minutes after the game we're getting phone calls from people back home congratulating us for the medal," said Drazen Brajkovic of the Croatian bench.
"We need to finish the job tomorrow because we want the gold medal against whoever we play."
"Saric once again was great, but he had a lot of help today from his teammates who did a great job with shooting, rebounding and defense."
It was Spain who had the better start with the first seven points of the game, but Lebo made a great block to stop a Spanish fast break from extending the lead, and at the other side hit a classic catch-and-shoot from the arc.
Saric scored his first field goal only after seven minutes, but right away added a three pointer to put Croatia on top for the first time, showed his defensive style with a big block at the other end and iced the cake with yet another three pointer, 16-12.
Spain recovered quickly, but Saric again, this time with a great assist to a three pointer by Lebo set the final score of the first quarter on 22-18.
The Croats scored the first four points of the second quarter to double the gap, but Spain had some tools of their own.
Perez hit a three pointer, wrote a steal and added another hit from distance in less than 30 seconds to put a 35-35 tie on the scoreboard.
Both sides added a couple, but the final play of the half was kept for Agusti Sans who not only drove to the hoop to score two plus the bonus from the line, but also drew Saric's third foul and made it 37-40 after 20 minutes.
The second half started with a basket by Sairc and a long distance arrow by Homs, and Spain remained on top until Lebo scored one more time from the arc and wrote 49-48 after 25 minutes.
Spain took the lead back only to see Saric score an off-dribble in-your-face three pointer of his own, and his team entered the last quarter up 55-54, but in big foul trouble.
Filip Bundovic already had four fouls, Saric remained with three but the three guards - Lebo, Brzoja and Junakovic had three as well.
Brzoja scored a far shot and Saric with yet another in-your-face made it 61-57, but the rain of threes didn't stop.
Once again Brzoja, and later Nikola Urli off a Saric assist set the ground for Junakovic to score from downtown and make it 69-61.
Spain tried to return but a technical foul on their bench and yet another three pointer by Junakovic made it 73-61 with 5:43 to play.
Pressure on the ball by Spain made some moves, but lack of focus on the other side kept the gap high before Saric fouled out with an offensive foul and 2:50 on the game clock, still up by 13.
"In a normal game Croatia is a better team," admitted the Spanish coach Luis Guil.
"This is why we had to play a crazy game if we wanted to make some changes, and it worked.
"We had the last shot for the game, and it means the comeback was done, but we just needed one more shot that yesterday went in and today didn't.
"Croatia play like a senior team with a go-to-guy and always know what to do, but I'm so proud of my players for their great heart and efforts in all this tournament and of course today as well," he concluded.
A technical foul on Junakovic was the first sign something starts to go wrong for his team and Bundovic fouled out right away to add more pressure on the Croatian bench.
Nevertheless, Brzoja set the gap on 12 with 2:09 to play before Spain started an amazing run.
Perez with a quick two saw Brzoja miss twice from the foul line, and Javier Marin showed how him to get it done at the other end, for just an eight point gap.
Croatia missed and Homs scored quickly and soon came a turnover that allowed Diaz to score twice from the foul line and make it 81-77 with 1:06 to play.
Yet another two missed shots from the charity stripe exampled just how stressed were the Croats and Perez punished with a slash to the rim and a bonus from the line to bring his team just one point behind, 81-80.
With 53 seconds to play Croatia still had everything to lose and Spain in a huge momentum, but a split second before the shot clock expired Brzoja found Urli with the assist of the night for an open lay up and first field goal for Croatia in over three minutes.
Perez drove fast to the other end to score quick two and Brzoja missed his first free throw with 22 seconds on the game clock, but made his second and moved the pressure to the other side.
Diaz kept the ball to himself and drove but the ball only slid out and his second attempt from mid-range worked the same, leaving his team behind before Mavra locked the game from the foul line to dis another huge upset by Spain and write history for Croatia.