In a sparkling game and win against their Russian opponents, the Croatian basketball national team began their quest for the European championship in Belgrade 2005.
In Södertälje, at the 2003 European Championships, the Croatians faced the same opponents and led until the last 72 seconds of the game. The return game with the Russians happened exactly a year later and this time, Croatia ran out easy winners.
The game between the Russian and Croatian teams also marked a jubilee: 34 year old Sergey Panov celebrated his 100th national team game since his debut in 1993. Croatia was without Zoran Planinic, Mario Stojic and NBA star Gordan Giricek, and Russia appeared without Andrei Kirilenko, Jon Holden, Sergia Monia and Alexander Bashminov.
The opening of the match was exactly as the Croatians hoped. Dalibor Bagaric of Skipper Bologna slammed the ball in the tip-off as a sign of 'welcome' and the home team quickly took a 12:2 lead. But the Russians soon had the advantage as they converted defense into zone. Vasili Karassev's experience was displayed as he delivered 11 points to even the score (30:30).
Before halftime, Croatia found strength to again take the lead. The level of defense was raised by the appearance of Marino Bazdaric, while the quality of offence was maintained by the diligent Andrija Zizic. A 12:2 run brought some peace of mind before the departure to the locker room. (45:37)
It took 5 minutes in the third quarter for Croatia to assert their complete dominance and by the fourth quarter Russia were out of the game.
The lead rapidly increased and in the 35th minute reached its maximum at +25. When captain Nikola Vujcic took the bench, the stadium erupted with the crowd chanting 'Croatia! Croatia!'
The final score was 86:63. Andrija Zizic finished with 20 points, while captain Vujcic managed 13 and 10 rebounds.
“There has been a lot of talk these days about the national team. After about 100 days of preparation, the only really important thing is that we won today. Now it will be easier for us to work. We took a major step towards the European Championships, but until we actually place our alertness must not waver." said Croatia coach Neven Spahija after the game.