By Simon Wilkinson, PA Sport
Latvia face their toughest challenge of EuroBasket preliminary round play on Sunday as they need nothing less than to defeat Serbia & Montenegro on their own court to challenge for a place in an elimination game.
Heroic displays by Sandis Valters and Kristaps Janicenoks weren’t enough to prevent Latvia from losing to group leaders Spain in a heartbreaking 114-109 overtime game.
Spain got off to a great start and Latvia were in foul trouble early on, sending the Spaniards to the free-throw line 20 times in the first quarter alone.
But behind an outside shooting barrage led by Valters and Janicenoks, the Latvians clawed their way out of a 14-point deficit to make a game of it.
Valters made 6 of 11 shots from beyond the arc, the most important one a desperation off-balance shot from the left baseline that tied the game at 98 all in the closing seconds of regulation to force the overtime.
|Sandis Valters will need to hit plenty of shots if Latvia are to beat Serbia & Montenegro|
However missed free-throws proved to be the deciding factor in this game and Latvia failed to earn those points in the fourth quarter and extra-time session.
Despite the final score, head coach Karlis Muiznieks was proud of his team’s efforts.
“I’m proud of the way we played. We were down early on and had some foul trouble, but we stayed patient and came back to make it an interesting game. But in the end, we made critical mistakes and it seemed luck was on Spain’s side,” he said.
Kristaps Valters conceded that the early foul trouble may have done Latvia’s chances in.
“Our defensive fouls really affected us, especially in the first quarter. Other than that, we played well. We shot the ball well, we played aggressive defense and managed to slow Spain down a bit. But in the end we just committed too many fouls.”
But Valters believes Latvia will take both the negatives and the positives from that game and come out strong against Serbia & Montenegro.
“Last night’s game gives us confidence for today’s. It will be our most important of the tournament yet because it may well be our last but we’ll be ready to give everything we have left.”
Despite the loss, Latvia will be happy to see that their style of play was in full effect as they converted 18 of their 45 attempts from three point range.
Against Israel, Serbia & Montenegro looked a different side than the one which lost by 19 points against Spain on Friday night – and in some way they were.
Igor Rakocevic replaced Dejan Bodiroga in the starting line-up and it made the defending champions a much quicker and energetic team.
Led by its contingent of NBA players, Serbia & Montenegro put together a 20-0 run in the fourth quarter to put Israel out of contention for good.
Krstic took care of the offense in the paint while Jaric did some damage from the perimeter and Milicic proved a threat defensively, blocking several shots before taking over from Krstic at the other end of the floor.
Jaric made amends for a sub-par performance against Spain by leading a balanced offense with 19 points. Rakocevic added 15 points and six assists and Krstic had a double double of 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Milicic, the 20-year-old who rarely plays for the Detroit Pistons, showed glimpses of his potential and finished the night with 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks.
After the game, Serbia & Montenegro head coach Zeljko Obradovic was happy with his team’s efforts but still saw things that needed correcting.
“We played well but we are still making some mistakes. We were more patient on offense and circulated the ball and tried not to force anything,” Obradovic said.
He also thanked the fans for sticking with Serbia & Montenegro through the good and the bad on the night, culminating in a standing ovation in the closing minutes of the game.
“The fans stood behind us when we were struggling to make anything good happen. And that’s when I feel we need them the most. When things aren’t going right. So my thanks go out to them for sticking by us all the way tonight.”
“We will need to play at least as well as we did against Israel to take care of Latvia today.”