By Jeff Taylor
Egle Sulciute’s late three-pointer capped a terrific comeback as Lithuania shocked France 67-65 to keep alive their hopes of playing at the Beijing Games in 2008.
The Baltic side trailed by as many as 14 points but persevered and edged Les Bleues.
They will now take on the winner of the Czech Republic’s classification game against Belgium in the fifth/sixth place game to determine who will play in next year’s pre-Olympic qualifying tournament.
Algirdas Paulauskas, the Lithuanian coach, said: “I'm proud of my girls coming back after
the tough game yesterday and playing against the tough defense of France.
|Sandra Valuzyte had 14 points and 10 rebounds to help keep Lithuania's Olympic hopes alive.|
“We didn't crack after we were losing by 14 points. I'm really proud of them.
“Even if we were losing by 20 points, you can't give up.
“You have to keep playing and that's what we did. The luck was with us today. But if you believe in the victory, the luck goes with it side-by-side.”
Trailing 55-41, the Baltic side scored eight consecutive points over the final 2:23 of the third quarter.
And with France self-destructing at the free throw line – they were 11 of 22 (50%) for the game and just two of eight (25%) in the fourth period – the Lithuanians clawed their way all the way back.
A Sulciute jumper, which took her tally to 15 points, trimmed the deficit to 61-60 with 3:52 to go but France kept their noses in front and when Edwige Lawson-Wade hit a jumper in the lane with 1:50 left, Les Bleues led 63-60.
Sulciute tied the contest at 63-63 by nailing a three-pointer with 52 seconds to play.
After Lawson-Wade hit another jump shot in the lane with 33 seconds to go, Algirdas Paulauskas’ side brought the ball up the floor and Sulciute struck again from long range.
That three-ball put Lithuania in front at 66-65 with 11 seconds remaining, but France still had a chance.
Jacques Commeres, the France coach, called timeout and instructed his team to get the ball inside to Gruda.
When play resumed, she received a pass on the low block but was surrounded by Lithuania’s defense and Milda Sauliute stole the ball.
France fouled Sandra Valuzyte with less than two seconds remaining and the Lithuanian guard made one of two at the line as the Baltic side held on to win by two.
Lina Brazdeikyte, who had 12 points for Lithuania, said: "Our strength is that we never give up and I think that surprised the French team.
“We kept fighting all the time and they didn't expect that.
“France is a strong team and they had a lot to lose in this game, whereas, we didn't have that pressure and it worked in our favour."
"It's very difficult to explain what happened,” said Commeres.
“We thought we had the game under control but we struggled from the free throw line and we looked nervous.
"We didn't achieve our goal and everyone is very down because there will be no French team at the Olympics.
“It's something terrible. I take my part in the responsibility of the team's results.”
France finished a disappointing eighth at the men’s EuroBasket in Spain last month.
"We will have to see what didn't work well for us on offense and defense,” Commeres said.
“Everyone wanted to do well but it has been very difficult for us from the first preparation game in the summer to the whole tournament."
Sulciute’s 21 points led all scorers while Valuzyte finished with 14.
For France, Gruda had 14 points and Isabelle Yacoubou a team-high 15.
Both were guilty of missing a lot of free throws, however, which cost France a chance at victory.
Gruda was four of eight (50%) while Yacoubou was five of nine (55.6%).