By Jeff Taylor
Before the start of the EuroBasket, Slovenia had two chances of winning Group D in Alicante – slim and none.
And slim just left town.
If that’s how most of us were thinking, Slovenia coach Ales Pipan and his players believed something else entirely.
Slovenia’s first three days of the EuroBasket have created a major stir back in Ljubljana.
|Matjaz Smodis las led Slovenia so far with just over 13 points per game.|
Jaka Lakovic made a three-pointer at the buzzer – just five seconds after Matteo Soragna’s three-ball had put Italy into a two-point advantage – as Slovenia beat the Azzurri on opening night.
Slovenia then hammered Poland, and capped a magnificent group campaign with a victory over Tony Parker and France.
So despite the absences of veterans Bostjan Nachbar, Sani Becirovic, Beno Udrih, Marko Milic and Primoz Brezec, Slovenia were able to hit the ground running here in Spain.
“I felt we had the team (to do well), a good combination of experienced players and young players,” said coach Ales Pipan.
“Good chemistry. Our goal was to get to at least seventh place to reach the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament.”
Slovenia have been a strange team over the years, when they have tended to raise more questions than provide answers.
How, for example, does such a small country produce so many players at top clubs in Europe, and the NBA?
All of the aforementioned who are no-shows this summer have ties to the NBA, whether they have been drafted, played in the past, or play now.
Captain Rasho Nesterovic is a Toronto Raptor.
Matjaz Smodis, a lot of people would say, is the best power forward in Europe at CSKA Moscow.
But, frustratingly for many of their fans at least, this team hasn’t been a force in an international tournament yet.
Some people have questioned their heart.
Two years ago, they stormed into the quarter-finals and got steamrolled by Dirk Nowitzki
|Jaka Lakovic hit the biggest shot of all for the Slovenians.|
Last year in Sapporo, at the FIBA World Championship, Slovenia bowed out of the competition in Group D when China hit a last-second three-pointer.
This team is tough, though.
Maybe that is the Smodis effect.
“Smodis is a really good player and important for our team,” Pipan said.
“Rasho, Jaka Lakovic and Smodis are the keys to our team and have been playing well.”
Most important, however, at least this was evident in the first three games, there has been a quality in the side that was not so apparent in years past.
“We are a real team thanks to the players,” Pipan said.
“We’ve played well, especially on the defense. We leave our best on the court. Our players have been putting their hearts on the court, so I’m really satisfied so far.”
The win against France on Wednesday was a classic show of grit and determination.
Nesterovic was ejected for a hard foul on Tony Parker in the third quarter, and Slovenia looked to be in danger of getting run out of the gym.
“We were in trouble,” Pipan admitted.
“Rasho went out, we were down 15 points, but we put things together and really did our best on the court, played very, very tough defense in the last quarter so we are very satisfied.”
It helped that Parker missed a free throw with two seconds remaining that would have tied the game and probably forced overtime.
In America, the month of March captivates an entire nation when the NCAA Tournament is staged. On the opening weekend, in particular, there are so many enthralling encounters between small schools and big universities and occasionally, there are upsets.
The drama in the EuroBasket, especially on the first three days, is tough to beat for entertainment, though.
Slovenia weren’t the only team playing in close games.
In Seville, Portugal upset Latvia on the last day and Croatia beat world champions Spain.
Israel, who had to win the additional qualifying tournament, beat Serbia and knocked them out of the tournament.
“This is the European Championship, there are surprises,” Pipan said.
“But we haven’t looked to much at the other groups, just at our own team.”
Pipan is keeping his feet on the ground.
He believes his team has as good a chance as any one here to do well.
“We have to play three more games (in the qualifying round),” he said.
“I hope we don’t stop here and can reach the quarter-final.”