By Jeff Taylor
Belarus survived a furious comeback by Latvia to win 72-63 and capture the bronze medal in their very first appearance at the EuroBasket Women.
Anatoli Buyalski’s team led by as many as 25 points late in the third quarter but had to hold on for dear life as the Baltic side closed the gap to 61-57 with 3:29 to go on Ieva Kublina’s four-point play.
That capped a 20-4 run and almost everyone, including Latvia President Valdis Zhtlers who was sitting courtside after arriving in Chieti for Sunday’s game, was standing on their feet and cheering.
|Jansone did all she could for Latvia turning in 23 points and seven rebounds.|
After Belarus’ Nataliya Trafimava and Latvia’s Jansone exchanged baskets, the team from Minsk did just enough to preserve victory.
The outstanding point guard Natalie Marchanka found Tatyana Troina open in the corner and the deadly three-point shooter struck for a 66-59 lead with 2:31 to go and Belarus pulled away for a nine-point triumph.
Marchanka, who finished with nine points, seven assists and three rebounds, said: "It was a little bit shaky when Latvia came back but we all stuck together and managed to hang on.
“But who would have believed it? This is a dream come true. We have worked as a team throughout this tournament and that has been the key to our success.
“We believed in ourselves, we played great defense.”
By game’s end, Belarus had 11 steals and Latvia had 18 turnovers.
The pill was tough to swallow for Latvia, who won over most of the neutrals at the EuroBasket with the dynamic play of point guard Gunta Basko and shooting guard Anete Jekabsone-Zogota.
But the victory was hugely important for Belarus.
"We are writing the history of Belorussian basketball,” Marchanka said.
“I'm very proud of my team and I am just happy to be a part of it.
"I will continue to work hard and achieve something higher than this.”
Belarus and Latvia will both play at next year’s World Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
"Everybody is so happy for us back home,” Marchanka added. “It's a big celebration back home, everyone has been cheering for us."
Latvia will leave with no medals, and there were tears shed after the game.
But the absence in the bronze medal game of the sensational Basko, who dislocated her elbow in Saturday’s semi-final defeat to Russia, and the leg and ankle injuries that prevented Jekabsone-Zogota from playing to anything near full capacity – she lasted just over 18 minutes – severely hurt Latvia’s chances.
“It’s disappointing because we wanted a medal,” said Kublina, “but I’m proud that we fought back.
“We had injuries that we were dealing with but we never quit. Hopefully we can qualify for the Olympics.”
Latvia coach Ainars Zvirgzdins cut a frustrated figure on the bench for the entire 40 minutes because his team couldn’t play at its best.
|Natallia Marchanka had seven assists in leading her team to victory.|
He had only praise after the final buzzer.
“This is a great success for the Latvia team,” he said.
“The entire team did a great job. With all the injuries and tears and happy and sad moments, we did a good job. This team has the potential to come together and do a good job next summer.”
Latvia led 17-16 at the end of the first quarter with Jansone – she had eight of her game-high 23 points - and Kublina (5pts, 4rbs in the period) doing most of the scoring.
Trafimava poured in eight points over the next 10 minutes though as Belarus outscored Latvia 16-7 to take a 32-24 half-time advantage.
The lead ballooned to 25 and the game, for all intents and purposes, looked over.
But Latvia refused to quit, and Belarus coach Buyalski admitted he was unsure if his team would prevail.
“I kept looking for a solution to the situation,” he said. “I felt that the game was getting out of our hands.
“But I think we had the five players on the court in the end who could finish the game.”
For Leuchanka, it was an emotional moment after the contest.
The 24-year-old who has come back from two ACL surgeries, finished with 10 points and nine rebounds and said: “I could only dream of being here.
“I’m so happy for all my teammates, that we came together,” Leuchanka said.
“Me personally? I guess everything happens for a reason. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.”
Anastasiya Veremeenko led Belarus with 15 points while Troina had 13 and Trafimava 12.