Behind the clutch shooting of Matej Mamic and strong second half defense, Croatia held of a gutsy effort from Bulgaria to win 88-84 in the first game of the Group B Preliminary Round in Podgorica.
A close game throughout, Mamic's three-pointers with 3:48 and 1:35 secured Croatia´s hard fought victory and off-set a 27-point performance from Bulgaria's Todor Stoykov. Croatia's second half defense on Stoykov was a key to Croatia's victory as the Bulgarian team captain was held to six points.
"He was tired," Croatian head coach Neven Spahija said of his team´s second half defensive effort against Stoykov. “It's impossible to play the way he did in the first half for an entire game. But we did better switching and putting pressure on him so he couldn't have as much space to shoot.”
"In the second half, Croatia´s defense stepped up and put more pressure on me,” Stoykov said.
“I also was in foul trouble and couldn't be as aggressive.”
Gordan Giricek led Croatia with 22 points, while Mamic finished with 20 and Zoran Planinic 16.
“We won a very difficult game,” said Mario Kasun, who grabbed a Croatian team high eight rebounds. “They (Bulgaria) are an excellent team.”
Playing in a EuroBasket game for the first time since 1993 and in front of a large contingent of their own fans, Bulgaria opened in a strong fashion against a significantly taller and more experienced Croatian team. They led 24-21 after the first quarter behind 12 points and a pair of assists from Stoykov. The pesky Bulgarian defense caused 12 first quarter Croatian turnovers.
Bulgaria added to their game total in the second quarter, punctuated by a Stoykov three point basket from well beyond the three point line as time expired, giving him 21 for the half. Stoykov connected on four three-pointers in the half.
Planinic, after sitting out the final 7 :25 of the second quarter, opened third quarter scoring with a three point basket and a break away dunk to give his team a one point lead. Giricek also turned up his offense, scoring 11 in the quarter. Bulgaria, with its three-point shooting and gritty downlow play, kept the game close and still maintained a one-point lead at the end of the quarter.
In the end though, it was too much Croatian scoring power down the stretch of the fourth quarter, which prevented Bulgaria from winning their first EuroBasket game since 1989.
“In the first half, we took quick shots and didn´t take advantage of our size advantage,” Spahija said. “In the second, we changed this.”
“I thought Croatia was one of the favourites to win EuroBasket prior to playing them and I still think the same after having played them,” Bulgarian head coach Rossen Barchovski said.
Croatia will look to improve to 2-0 on Saturday when they take on Lithuania, while Bulgaria will play against Turkey.
NOTES : The Opening Ceremony for the games in Podgorica were held before the start of the Lithuania-Turkey tip-off. Group B Technical Commissioner Marek Pazucha of Poland declared the opening of the games following a dance routine and the marching of the four participating teams ... Bulgaria's last EuroBasket win was a 91-86 decision over the Netherlands in 1989. .... Angelov Dimitrov and Filip Videnov also scored in double digits for Bulgaria, with 12 points and 11 respectively.
Bulgaria and Croatia, two teams with rich basketball histories, match-up against each other in the first game of Group B in Podgorica both seeking a positive start and a return to the top following long absences.
Croatia, Olympic Silver medallists back in 1992, have not climbed onto the EuroBasket podium in 10 years. Following a bronze medal performance at the 1995 edition of EuroBasket, Croatia has failed to finish higher than seventh in the competition. They enter Friday’s night game with a optimistic outlook for the tournament.
“I expect the gold,” Croatian star guard Gordan Giricek said. “It’s a competitive way of thinking. If we are there to compete, then I’m thinking of winning the title, it is the only possible way to reason.”
|Gordan Giricek is vital to Croatia's EuroBasket hopes|
Bulgaria’s first attempt at a victory in over a decade will be no small task by going against a Croatian team consisting of NBA talents such as Giricek and Zoran Planinic and Maccabi Tel Aviv big man Nikola Vujcic.
Despite the challenges ahead, Bulgarian head coach Rossen Barchovski is optimistic.
“Faith is the most important word for us. I believe in my players, they know it and they proved they deserved that trust with the way they played in the qualification games,” he said.
The game features a pair of top perimeter scorers in Bulgarian team captain Todor Stoykov and Croatia's Giricek. In the six qualification games, Stoykov led the team in points (19.3), rebounds (6.2), assists (4.0) and steals (1.3). Giricek, considered one of the top shooting guards in Europe, started in 44 games with the Utah Jazz this past season.
Bulgaria’s young and inexperienced team, which consists of the guard tandem of 19-year-old twins Dejan and Kalojan Ivanov, will have to rise to the challenge quickly against Croatia’s more experienced roster.
"I believe that we have enough weapons to stay in the game and if we are strong enough mentally, we can do it," Bulgarian guard Filip Videnov said.
GAME: B1 – Croatia vs. Bulgaria
RECORDS: Croatia 0-0, Bulgaria 0-0
KEY MATCH-UP: Bulgaria’s lefty forward Todor Stoykov and Croatia's Gordan Giricek can both put up points in a hurry.
INJURIES: CRO - Croatia shooting guard Marino Bazdaric has been ruled out of EuroBasket because of a wrist injury. BUL – After struggling with a knee injury, guard Yordan Bozov has recovered and is ready for the competition.
OTHER NOTES: Dejan and Kalojan Ivanov were members of Bulgaria’s 2004 U18 roster.