Greece concluded their improbable EuroBasket run with a convincing 78-62 victory over Germany to win the gold medal for the first time since 1987.
In front of a raucous pro-Greece, sold out crowd of 19,000 at the Belgrade Arena, the Greeks used their trademark of teamwork and solid defence to roll to victory over a Dirk Nowitzki led German team.
As the final buzzer sounded, players ran on to the court in celebration and the thousands of Greek fans in attendance rose to their feet singing songs from their homeland. Head coach Panagiotis Yannakis was thrown in the air by his players.
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“It´s a big honour to see your country´s flag raised and to sing the national anthem,” said Theodorus Popouloukas. “I know everyone back home is on the streets celebrating.”
EuroBasket 2005 tournament Most Valuable Player Nowitzki was once again brilliant, this time in defeat. He scored 23, including a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line. He got little help from his team-mates, with only Patrick Femerling finishing in double figures scoring with 11.
In one of the many emotional moments at the Belgrade Arena, Nowitzki was pulled with 3:22 to go in the fourth and the outcome of the game no longer in doubt. Nowitzki received a thunderous standing ovation, many of were Greek fans. Nowitzki hugged everyone - team-mates, coaches and physios and waved to the crowd.
The fact that they gave him an ovation even though he was the opposition was great,” said German head coach Dirk Bauermann. “It´s well deserved.”
Said Nowitzki: “Greece played phenomenal and deserved to win.”
For Yannakis, it is deja vu all over again. Eighteen years ago, Yannakis was the point guard for Greece´s team that unexpectedly won the 1987 EuroBasket title, similar to the 2005 team which was not considered a tournament favourite.
“I'm dreaming,” said the victorious coach. “I'm not on earth. This is unbelievable.”
In a competition that featured Nowitzki and a host of other marquee NBA names, it was the team without a single NBA player that took home the gold, demonstrating the importance of team basketball.
Greece led 39-32 at half-time, and pressed home their advantage in third quarter when they opened quickly. The men in blue and white hit three-pointers on their first three possessions at the start of the quarter, two from Paploukas and the other by Nikolaos Chatzivrettas to open a 48-36 lead. Papaloukas added another bucket, putting Greece up 50-36.
After the teams exchanged baskets over the next minutes, Papaloukas delivered another dagger with a three from the corner extending Greece´s lead to 61-44 with 1:53 remaining in the third.
Greece, who took a 64-48 lead into the fourth quarter, started sloppy with a pair of turnovers, but Germany came up empty on two of three possessions.
Papaloukas, who was selected to the 2005 EuroBasket All-Tournament Team, was again the man of the night, connecting on a driving lay-up to put Greece up 68-50 with 6:57 to go in the fourth and all that remained in doubt from that point on was how loud the celebration would be.
“We dreamed of this,” said Papaloukas. “I was 10 years old when coach´s team won. Now we realize we can do the same for Greeks kids. This is one of the greatest moments of our career.”
The fans at the beginning of the game had witnessed a nervous start.
Both teams opened tentatively through the first seven minutes as Germany committed seven turnovers and as a result took only four field goal attempts. Greece were two of their first nine but then made five of their last six shot attempts in the quarter to jump out to a 19-12 lead.
Sven Schultze came off the bench to score four points and the Germans were fortunate to only be down seven after finishing the quarter with more turnovers (seven) than field goals attempts (six).
Greece went on a 9-2 second quarter run to open up a 10-point lead with 5:47 to go in the half. Captain Michail Kakiouzis scored five during the spurt with a three-pointer and put-back.
The teams exchanged baskets for the rest of the second quarter. Nowitzki´s three-pointer as the second quarter buzzer sounded allowed Germany to go into their halftime locker room with a bounce in their step.
When it was over, Niko Zisis had scored 13 points and Kakiouzis 11 in a dominant team performance.
Germany, who used hot three-point shooting to advance to the medal round, shot just three-of-16 from downtown and committed 21 crucial turnovers for the game.
Demonstrating the improbability of Greece´s gold medal run, even Yannakis said prior to the tournament that a top-six finish and berth to the FIBA World Championship was the goal, anything higher being a significant feat.
Well, Greece did more than just a significant feat, considering that they took out Russia, France and Germany in the quarters, semis and final to claim the gold. Each of those teams was led by top NBA players in Andrei Kirilenko, Tony Parker and Nowitzki respectively.
For Germany, a silver medal was beyond the expectations of many, and even themselves. Coach Dirk Bauermann said it would be difficult to finish in the top six, so clearly the Germans can take away many positives from their second medal ever in EuroBasket.
“No one expected us to get this far, so it´s an accomplishment we got this far,” said Nowitzki.
They had won gold in 1993.
The Greeks have now won four medals overall.