Latvia Fall Just Short
Latvia gave their fans another wild ride at the EuroBasket Women on Thursday night but fell in overtime to defending champions Russia.
Becky Hammon scored nine of her 11 points in the extra period and the twin towers of Maria Stepanova and Irina Osipova combined for 29 points and 23 rebounds in a 69-64 win that has put the Russians into a Semi-Final against Spain - the team they beat in the title game two years ago.
In a physical encounter, Russia's Svetlana Abrosimova had 13 points, 12 rebounds and two steals as her former coach at the University of Connecticut, Geno Auriemma (the new USA women's national team boss) looked on.
In front of a EuroBasket Women record crowd in the modern era of 8,713, the Latvians got a game-high 23 points from Anete Jekabsone-Zogota and 17 from Gunta Basko.
"Tonight was a very hard game," said Russia's Ilona Korstin, who had 14 points, nine boards and two steals.
"We didn't play against five players but against a whole arena. I am very proud of my team. We fought until the end.
"We had overtime, too, but I'm glad that everybody found something inside, the soul, to put it out there in the most important moments.
"This game will stay in our memory. If we continue to play like that, nobody can stop us."
Russia remained in the hunt for the medals in Riga but also qualified for the 2010 FIBA World Championship for Women and the EuroBasket that is to be played in Poland the following year.
Latvia, arguably the best supported women's national team in the world, must now hope to finish fifth to qualify for the FIBA World Championship in the Czech Republic and the 2011 EuroBasket.
In emotional scenes for the Latvian players at the end of the game, a roar of LATVIA! LATVIA! shook the Arena Riga, suggesting there will be plenty of fans on Friday night when they go up against Italy in their first classification game.
If they win that game, Ainars Zvirgzdins' team will face the winner of Slovakia's clash with Greece in the battle for fifth place.
"Congratulations to Russia because they played hard and claimed a good victory," Zvirgzdins said.
"First of all, I'm really happy for the support we had. I'm glad the girls fought back and took game to overtime. It is very good for team of Latvia."
Latvia have never beaten Russia but in this game, they had a great shot.
Trailing 14-5 with three minutes to go in the first quarter, Jekabsone-Zogota scored 10 consecutive points to put her team on top heading into the second stanza.
Latvia had a 30-26 advantage at half-time with Jekabsone-Zogota's 14 points leading all scorers.
She had 12 points of her team's 15 points in the opening quarter with Dita Krumberga pouring in seven in the second frame.
Stepanova stopped the rot with a jumper and two free throws before Russia went up 20-15 but Latvia's great defensive work allowed them to go on a 11-0 run and take a 26-20 advantage with four different players contributing in that surge.
Stepanova's two free throws gave the Russians a 39-37 lead at the end of the third quarter and after a very hard six and a half minutes in the fourth quarter, Russia went on top at 50-45 after Korstin grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on the put-back.
Russia weren't able to put Latvia away, however.
After Latvia's Kristine Karklina missed from long range, the tournament hosts fouled Korstin with three seconds remaining.
She missed the first free-throw attempt but made the second and Latvia called timeout to draw up a final play.
They inbounded the ball to Basko who cut to her left, drove into the lane laid the ball off the glass and in to knot the contest at 53-53 to force overtime.
Latvia led at the start of the extra period after a Jekabone-Zogota jumper but Hammon gave Russia the lead for good with 2:27 to go when she made her first three-pointer in six attempts for a 60-57 edge.
Russia twice went in front by five only for Latvia to stay within striking distance.
Basko's drive and lay-up with 13 seconds to go cut the deficit to 65-64 and Karklina then stopped the clock when fouling Hammon.
The American made both for a three-point lead and Latvia needed a three-pointer to tie it.
Basko brought the ball up the floor and launched an attempt from behind the arc but was off target and Stepanova rebounded the miss.
She then made two free throws to seal the five-point triumph.
Russia coach Valeriy Tikhonenko said: "It was a good crowd, a great atmosphere. We played against a great team.
"We prepared against Jekabasone-Zogota, Basko and (Zane) Tamane because we know they can score.
Jekabsone scored 23 points but her shooting percentage (eight of 24, 33%) was low so we did a good job.
"We wanted to win this game without overtime but sport is sport. We gave this crowd five minutes more of great basketball. I wish Latvia the best."
Jekabsone-Zogota, the 2007 FIBA Europe Women's Player of the Year, said: "It's very sad we can't fight for our medals in front of our crowd and at our home.
"It was very tough, a very good game to the last minute. I'm very disappointed that luck was not on our side."