Andrei Kirilenko and his Russian teammates shook off a poor shooting night to beat Ukraine 86-74 on Friday to head Group A at the 2005 EuroBasket.
The Russians made just 5 of their first 23 shots and finished the game shooting only 41 per cent. But the versatile Utah Jazz star Kirilenko led the way with 22 points 14 rebounds, five blocked shots, three steals and two assists - though he too hit just 7/20 from the field and 6/11 free throws.
|Andrei Kirilenko (Russia)|
"This was the first game. I think we were really nervous and you saw that," Kirilenko said.
Sergey Monya, who scored eight points off the bench, reiterated Kirilenko's view: "We didn't show our full power. But it was important that we won."
Serhiy Lishchuk led Ukraine with 18 points. But most of his production came after Los Angeles Lakers forward Stanislav Medvedenko had fouled out midway through the third quarter with 14 points in 21 minutes. Andrii Lebediev tallied 13.
"We have a lot of young, very talented players. But it was my fault,"
Medvedenko said. "I committed the five fouls."
Russia started the game icy - 5/23 from the field midway through the second quarter - and warmed just slightly. Because of the poor shooting - just 6/21 from behind the three-point stripe, Babkov's team was never able to pull away from the Ukrainians.
Ukraine's young inexperienced squad held strong against the NBA stars from Russia. Down 75-69 with 2:30 left in the game, Lebediev drove to the basket, was fouled and made the basket plus free throw to cut the lead to three.
Morgunov tipped in Holden's missed three only to have Volodymyr Gurtovyy pull it back to three for Gennadi Zaschuk's squad. Victor Khryapa hit a jumper and Petr Samoylenko hit two free throws to push the lead back up to seven.
Russia lead Group A on point differential ahead of Italy, who beat Germany earlier Friday. Italy and Russia face off on Saturday while Germany take on Ukraine in the night game.
Russia cannot afford to slip in their 2005 EuroBasket opener against Ukraine on Friday in Vrsac if they want to capture a medal.
It's been eight years since Russia - who are teamed with Ukraine, Germany and Italy in Group A - made the podium - a third-place finish in 1997.
Kirilenko looks to be fit after scoring 27 points against Turkey in late August. And he's receiving a lot of help. American naturalized guard J.R. Holden has been excellent in taking over the playmaking duties, and Portland Trail Blazers youngsters Sergey Monya and Victor Khyrapa (who was born in Ukraine) make up a tremendously talented and young front court.
Coach Sergey Babov's team altogether is rather young - averaging 24.6 years with five players 23 or under.
"The youth of our team will be a strong plus for the national team of Russia," Babov said. "But these players have gathered for the first time together. It's difficult to count on mutual understanding of players in every situation at the moment."
Missing from Babov's team is 34-year-old guard Vasili Karasev - a member of Russia's 1998 World Championship silver medal-winning squad - who decided to retire from the national team.
Beating Ukraine in their first game could be crucial to Russia's confidence in the tournament.
Few meanwhile are expecting Ukraine to surprise anybody in their fourth EuroBasket tournament overall and third straight.
Los Angeles Lakers forward Stanislav Medvedenko will be called upon to lead Coach Gennadiy Zaschuk's team.
"This year Stanislav Medvedenko can become a real leader. I think his experience should help him to lead us at difficult moments," said Ukraine center Olexsiy Pecherov.
The 19-year-old Pecherov is actually one of the leading prospects coming into this tournament. And it's Pecherov and other youngsters who hold the future of Ukrainian basketball in their hands.
While Ukraine only have an outside chance of finishing among the top six and qualifying for the 2006 World Championships, Pecherov said the team is thinking about the future: "More important is to be able to qualify for the 2008 Olympics at EuroBasket 2007 by enhancing our teamwork."
The Russia-Ukraine game will follow the Germany-Italy opener in Group A.