By Jeff Taylor
France held on against never-say-die Russia to win the gold medal at the EuroBasket Women on Saturday night in Latvia.
After the disappointment of an eighth-place finish in 2007, Pierre Vincent's team capped a remarkable comeback to the top of Europe with a 57-53 win over Russia in the championship game.
Sandrine Gruda, France's star center and leading scorer in the tournament, had 12 points in a balanced attack as Les Bleues captured the title for only the second time and went undefeated in the
|Cathy Melain will go into retirement with a gold medal around her neck.|
They led by as many as 19 points in the second half before sweating out a nervous final minute as missed free throws gave the Russians a chance to draw closer.
Valeriy Tikhonenko's team closed the gap to four points in the final minute and had the ball but got no closer.
In the other gold-medal win, France hosted the 2001 event and beat Russia in that final.
"We had nothing to lose going into this game," said Emmeline Ndongue, who had eight of her 11 points in the first half as France got on top of the defending champions for good.
"We had already qualified for the World Championship and there was no pressure on us.
"(France coach) Vincent did everything to make us win. He gave every player a chance to be on the court and that gives you confidence."
France sharpshooter Emmanuelle Hermouet echoed those sentiments.
"The coach never doubted," she said, "and that's very important for the players because it gives you calmness and confidence."
France won a series of close games, including a 51-49 nail-biter against Greece in the Quarter-Finals and a 64-56 win over Belarus in the Semi-Finals.
They had also made a statement to Russia in their Qualifying Round meeting, overcoming them 72-66.
Russia pulled away against Spain to win their Semi-Final 77-61, however, and entered the title
showdown with plenty of cause for optimism.
|Svetlana Abrosimova earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team but did not manage another gold medal.|
Vincent's team restricted Russia to just 19 first-half points and opened their big advantage in the third quarter with great balance on offense and tenacious defense and rebounding.
With 1:40 remaining, however, cracks began to show in the French armor.
Gruda fouled Maria Stepanova behind the three-point arc with the shot-clock winding down and the big center went to the charity stripe and made all three attempts to close the gap to 55-51.
Becky Hammon and Svetlana Abrosimova had chances to cut the deficit to one but missed three-pointers.
They stayed within striking distance, though, as France missed six free-throws in the final 1:08.
Russia pulled to within 57-53 on a lay-up by Abrosimova with 29 seconds to play.
After Ndongue misfired on two attempts at the stripe, Russia rushed the ball up the floor only for Abrosimova, Stepanova and Marina Karpunina to be off target from long range.
France's Celine Dumerc grabbed the rebound on Karpunina's miss and ran up the floor as the final buzzer sounded.
Dumerc threw the ball up into the air and the French began a party that was sure to last for several hours in Riga.
"You always have a chance in any tournament," Vincent said. "I knew if we played well in Latvia, we'd have an opportunity and we did."
France never looked rattled against the Russians, even in the final minutes when their free-throw stroke deserted them.
Vincent's team seized command with a 12-1 run over the last four and a half minutes of the first half.
Stepanova's jump shot trimmed the French lead to 18-17 but Les Bleues then blew them away.
Ndongue hit a mid-range jumper and Gruda followed with a lay-up after a nifty pass from Cathy Melain, who delayed her retirement from basketball to play in this EuroBasket.
Hermouet capped the spurt with a three-pointer for a 30-19 advantage at the break.
The Russian trees of Stepanova and Irina Osipova had a combined four points and six rebounds at the break, while the French frontcourt of Ndongue and Gruda had contributed a total of 15 points and five boards.
Midway through the third quarter and the French reeled off nine straight points as the lead ballooned to 19.
On top 36-26, Dumerc hit a three, Elodie Godin followed with a three-point play and Pauline Krawczyk drilled a three-ball to make it 45-26.
Russia did well to get back into the game but ultimately were never able to climb out of the giant 19-point hole.