A three-pointer by Dimitrios Diamantidis three seconds from the end set off a thunderous celebration in the Belgrade Arena on Saturday night as the Greeks fought back from a seven-point deficit in the final minute to stun France 67-66 and advance to the gold medal game.
France, closing in on appearance in the title game for the first time in six decades, self-destructed as both Tony Parker and captain Antoine Rigaudeau missed important free throws to leave the door open for a Greek comeback.
After Rigaudeau made just one of two from the line with 11 seconds remaining, Greece inbounded the ball to Nikos Zisis who raced up the floor and towards the basket before kicking the ball out to Diamantidis who never hesitated when releasing his left-handed shot which hit the bottom of the net.
France gave the ball to Rigaudeau who dribbled to midcourt and attempted to launch a desperation shot but guarded by Greece players, he was called for traveling as time expired setting off a joyous celebration from Greek players and thousands of their fans in attendance.
|Antoine Rigaudeau made some costly errors down the stretch|
“There are no words to describe what Dimitrios did – he is amazing,” said Nikolaos Zisis, who scored 11 points, including three big free throws with 40 seconds remaining that allowed Greece to stay close and cut the French lead to 62-58.
Greece, who famously won gold in 1987 and then silver in 1989, are back in the title game and will face the winner of Spain´s semi-final with Germany.
“This is basketball,” said Greece´s team captain Michail Kakiouzis. “We never stopped fighting and always believed in oursleves and then got a little luck in the end.”
Parker was brilliant in the first half and led all scorers with 20 points, while center Lazaros Papadopolous had 15 for Greece and Dimosthenis Ntikoudis finished with 14.
France seemed to be cruising towards their first EuroBasket medal game appearance since 1935 after Parker drained a three-pointer with 1:12 reamining to give the French a 58-51 advantage in a game that was neck-and neck throughout. But Parker clanked a pair of free throws with 38 seconds to go and commited a turnover eight seconds later.
Papadopoulos´ dunk with 26 seconds to go cut the deficit to two at 62-60. Parker was fouled a second later and this time the San Antonio Spurs point guard hit both. Papaloukas scored again down low and Rigadeau connected on one of two as the French still maintained a 65-62 lead.
Papaloukas was fouled with 13 seconds to go and hit both and then fouled Rigadeau with 11 seconds, setting the stage Diamantidis to be an unlikely Greek hero.
The three for Diamantidis was his seventh point of the game and the 25-year old entered play averaging six a game.
For the third consecutive game, French coach Claude Bergeaud elected to keep Tony Parker on the bench and Greece jumped out to a 7-2 lead to start the game and led 16-14 after one.
Parker entered the game with 3:39 to go in the first and played solidly, scoring 13 in the opening half.
The first half was a defenensive struggle as the teams exchanged leads with no team having an advantage of more than five points.
Parker's three-pointer as time expired in the second quarter gave France a 30-29 halftime lead. France led despite 2-of-10 shooting from three-point range and 12 turnovers.
The trend continued in the third as France and Greede stayed neck-and-neck with no team leading by more than three for the entire quarter and France clinging to a 45-44 advantage.
With Parker taking a fourth quarter breather, Greece took a 47-46 lead on a three by Nikolaos Chatzivrettas in the opening minutes of the quarter. Parker returned and France went on a 9-2 run to open a 55-49 lead with 2:26 remaining before the final dramatic minutes unfolded.
France will try to win their first bronze since 1959 when they take on the loser of the Germany-Spain match-up.
Following impressive wins on Thursday night, France and Greece will today do battle for the right to play in the gold medal game.
The two teams know each other well, as they met in Group C. Greece won the game 64-50 in the team opening games. With that result, Greece leads the all-time head to head results 10-5. But past results are of no value this time.
Les Bleus had stunned Serbia & Montenegro in the elimination game in Novi Sad on Tuesday night to set up the quarter-final encounter.
Revenge was the name of the game for Claude Bergeaud's men, as they were able to topple the side that prevented them from reaching the finals at the Eurobasket in Sweden two years ago with a 9-0 run to end the game.
Now, France will want to serve the dish to Greece as well, after falling to them in the group stages.
"It was nice to get revenge over Lithuania, even if they were missing some important players," said French point guard Tony Parker who finished with 11 points and 5 assists.
The opportunity to play in a gold medal game has been a long time coming for France. Not since 1949 - when they claimed silver - have they been to the finals.
Like in Sweden in 2003, France are now just two games away from the country's first-ever EuroBasket gold medal. But the players aren't looking too far ahead.
"We can't start thinking about the final yet. We need to beat Greece first and that will take our best effort yet. It won't be the most spectacular or high scoring of games, but more of a match-up of the two best defenses in the tournament."
And France has certainly locked down on defense in the last two games. They held Lithuania to only 47 points on Thursday night, about 40 less than the Group B winner had averaged through its first three games.
Everyone on the rejuvenated French team is doing his part in the team's success. Diaw leads a balanced offense, with captain Antoine Rigaudeau and Parker splitting the point guard duties, while the Pietrus brothers and Mickael Gelabale are holding down the tight defense, and down in the paint Cyril Julian, Julien Schmitt and even 2.18m center Frederic Weis are more than holding their own.
And Bergeaud supports this idea that France is completely different to the team it was against Greece a week ago.
"In that first game against Greece, we failed to play with some rhythm. If we can impose our rhythm and a good tempo, it will be a very tough game for Greece. For us, the key is not to get into a slow game where we're walking the ball," said Bergeaud.
Meanwhile Greece rallied from an early double digit deficit to earn a shocking 66-61 victory over Russia.
With a victory in the semi-finals, Greece would be assured of their best finish in the Eurobasket since 1989, when they won silver, and would be one victory shy of their first gold medal since 1987.
"It's a very big success for us to reach the semi-finals and everybody must respect these kids for what they've done," said Greek head coach Panagiotis Yannakis.
Now, Greece will want to prove that the win over France was no fluke.
"The two teams know one another very well," said Michail Kakiouzis. "The fact that France eliminated Serbia-Montenegro means something. We know that they like to play a very defensive style."
"We don't fear France," said Dimosthenis Ntikouadis. "We respect them, but at the same time we see this game as our big chance to reach the finals for the first time in more than 15 years."
Coach Yannakis believes Greece will need to be aware of France's extra incentive - avenging their loss earlier in the tournament - and match it.
"I think the game against France will be very difficult, maybe even more difficult than if we had played Lithuania, because France is more motivated to beat us after we won the first game in the preliminary round," Yannakis said.
"We need to play very good in defense and find our rhythm in shooting. The Greek fans are very important for us. We owe them very much. They make us want to play better".
At the other end of the court, Greece will need its balanced offense to be on display once again. No player averages more than 11 points per outing and the first game against France showed the scoring can come from various sources, as evidenced by Theodoros Papaloukas' 23-point performance off the bench last week.
"Every player can come in and make a difference and the crucial shot, because everybody put their ego behind for the best of the team."
That 'team first' mentality is something Greece share with their France, and it will be a matter of which side can live up to that reputation the most which will determine the winner.