Once again the "Pionir" arena hosted an historic event in European basketball on Sunday.
Thousands of Slovenians were left celebrating after their national side qualified for the EuroBasket quarter-finals for the first time following a 68-58 win over France to finish on top of Group C with a perfect 3-0 record.
"I congratulate all my players for what they have shown here in the first three days of the games," said Slovenia coach Ales Pipan.
"All credit goes to them. I would also like to thank to the wonderful fans who cheered for us for three days."
|Slovenia have received a massive boost from their fans in Belgrade|
France's fans may have thought they would be the ones cheering after the first half, though.
Slovenia went the first two minutes and 20 seconds without scoring a point.
They finally got on the board when Bostjan Nachbar sank his first three-pointer of the night.
The lead switched hands six times during the first 10 minutes, and an arrow from downtown by Sanya Giffa in the closing seconds gave France a 15-12 lead when the buzzer sounded.
Antoine Rigaudeau, the veteran who helped France claim a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics, came off the bench to score five points in four minutes to cover for Tony Parker, who continued to struggle in this tournament. The San Antonio Spurs guard was 0-6 from the floor in the first half.
Jaka Lakovic was out of his rhythm in the first half for Slovenia, too, and that helped France take a 32-28 lead into the changing rooms, with Boris Diaw scoring Les Bleus' last four points of the half.
France managed to stay on top for three more minutes after the restart until Nachbar's mid-range jumper from the right gave Slovenia a 37-36 advantage.
A Sani Becirovic jump shot and two Lakovic free throws gave Slovenia a 41-36 lead and completed a 9-0 run the French never recovered from.
Pipan's players found their basketball karma, and once again showed their great passing game, rebounding tough defence.
France had no one to offer other than Diaw, and against a superb team it takes much more than that.
Despite the loss France, will play in the elimination round after finishing the first stage with a 1-2 record, but they must wait for the result of the game between Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina to find out their final ranking.
France missed Mickael Pietrus, who had to rest due to a knee injury, but suffered an even bigger absence on court in the shape of Parker, who once again finished the game with only two points after making just one of 12 shots.
Les Bleus, who lost to Greece in their opener before coming from behind to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday, had another bad night from the line where they made only 10 out of 21.
They were even worse from three-point land, draining four of 17 shots.
The rebounding, as usual, was crucial. France held their own in the first half, but in the second half Slovenia had total domination under their basket.
The winners held a 45-39 lead in rebounds at the end of the game.
"We tried to fight, but we had to fight 40 minutes to win and we didn't do that," said Rigaudeau.
"We made two to three mistakes and let the Slovenians take control of the game."
Lakovic may have suffered a bad first half but after doubling his six points from the first 20 minutes in the third quarter, he opened the last quarter with another three-pointer from the corner to give Slovenia their first double digit lead at 56-44.
That is when Slovenia's fans started their celebrations.
Lakovic finished with 18 points, Radoslav Nesterovic had the first double-double of Group C with 12 points and 10 rebounds and Nachbar scored nine.
Boris Diaw once again led the French side with 16 points and seven rebounds (although he was a woeful 0 of 11 from the free throw line), while Antoine Rigaudeau had 12 points.
Since joining the European basketball family in 1993, Slovenia have yet to miss a EuroBasket, an achievement of which few teams can boast.
However, despite possessing some of Europe’s top basketball talent, Slovenia have yet to make a real impact on the event and have never qualified for the quarter-final stages.
Against France on Sunday, Slovenia can add a new chapter to their basketball history and a win would be enough to secure a place in the top eight.
Nobody is under any illusions as to the game’s significance. "It's the most important game in Slovenian basketball history, because it can put us, for the first time in history in the top 8," said Ales Pipan after the win over Greece.
|Boris Diaw has been France's top performer so far at EuroBasket|
Pipan chose to cancel the morning practice and give his player more time to rest after the big win over Greece on Saturday, 68-56, a performance that has people talking about Slovenia as legitimate gold medal contenders.
After two days Slovenia are the best defensive rebounding team at EuroBasket, averaging 30 rpg. Slovenia can rely on skilled big men Radoslav Nesterovic, Primoz Brezec, Bostjan Nachbar and Erazem Lorbek on the boards, but rebounding is a team concept for Slovenia, with guards Sani Becirovic, Jaka Lakovic and Marko Milic pulling down 9 rebounds each over the first 2 games.
France waited over 6 quarters before showing up to EuroBasket 2005, but what coach Claude Bergeaud saw in the last 2 quarters of his side’s 79-62 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina gives him cause for optimism.
Boris Diaw's performance showed why he's in the NBA. Diaw was everywhere on court and carried his team to their first EuroBasket2005 win .But he is fully aware that a loss to Slovenia could spell the end of France’s EuroBasket hopes.
" It looks like the third place in our group will have to play against Serbia and Montenegro in the next round, and it's not very good to play against them in a do-or-die game in their home country," he said.
France have two big concerns going into the Slovenia game. The first is the continued poor performance of Tony Parker and the second is the health of Mickael Pietrus
After two games Parker is still without a free throw (0/3) or three-pointer (0/5) to his name. He has scored a total of only 12 points at 6/17 from 2 point range and is averaging 3.5 turnovers.
Pietrus has been in better form and was a key component in France’s win over Bosnia-Herzegovina with 22 points and 7 rebounds. However, he has a knee injury, and although he says he wants to play, it is unclear if he will be able to manage significant minutes.
Without Parker in good shape it will be almost impossible for France to progress to the latter stages of the tournament, and coach Bergeaud doesn't want to heap more pressure onto his star guard: "I hope Tony will comeback especially in shooting. He didn't have a lot of practice during preparation, and so we must control his time of game. If he plays too much in one game, he won't be able to finish the competition," he said.
After two games France are the worst three-point shooting side in the competition at only 6/32 (18.8%). France are also last in free throw percentage with a poor 49%. What has kept France alive so far is the offensive boards, where they lead the competition with an impressive average of 15.5 per game.
Bearing in mind that Slovenia are the tournament’s top defensive rebounding team, the battle for control of the boards may well be the decisive factor in which side emerges with a win.