Greece concluded their improbable EuroBasket run with a convincing 78-62 victory over Germany to win the gold medal for the first time since 1987.
In front of a raucous pro-Greece, sold out crowd of 19,000 at the Belgrade Arena, the Greeks used their trademark of teamwork and solid defence to roll to victory over a Dirk Nowitzki led German team.
As the final buzzer sounded, players ran on to the court in celebration and the thousands of Greek fans in attendance rose to their feet singing songs from their homeland. Head coach Panagiotis Yannakis was thrown in the air by his players.
|Theodoros Papaloukas was not tournament MVP, but he was the best player during the final|
“It´s a big honour to see your country´s flag raised and to sing the national anthem,” said Theodorus Popouloukas. “I know everyone back home is on the streets celebrating.”
EuroBasket 2005 tournament Most Valuable Player Nowitzki was once again brilliant, this time in defeat. He scored 23, including a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line. He got little help from his team-mates, with only Patrick Femerling finishing in double figures scoring with 11.
In one of the many emotional moments at the Belgrade Arena, Nowitzki was pulled with 3:22 to go in the fourth and the outcome of the game no longer in doubt. Nowitzki received a thunderous standing ovation, many of were Greek fans. Nowitzki hugged everyone - team-mates, coaches and physios and waved to the crowd.
The fact that they gave him an ovation even though he was the opposition was great,” said German head coach Dirk Bauermann. “It´s well deserved.”
Said Nowitzki: “Greece played phenomenal and deserved to win.”
For Yannakis, it is deja vu all over again. Eighteen years ago, Yannakis was the point guard for Greece´s team that unexpectedly won the 1987 EuroBasket title, similar to the 2005 team which was not considered a tournament favourite.
“I'm dreaming,” said the victorious coach. “I'm not on earth. This is unbelievable.”
In a competition that featured Nowitzki and a host of other marquee NBA names, it was the team without a single NBA player that took home the gold, demonstrating the importance of team basketball.
Greece led 39-32 at half-time, and pressed home their advantage in third quarter when they opened quickly. The men in blue and white hit three-pointers on their first three possessions at the start of the quarter, two from Paploukas and the other by Nikolaos Chatzivrettas to open a 48-36 lead. Papaloukas added another bucket, putting Greece up 50-36.
After the teams exchanged baskets over the next minutes, Papaloukas delivered another dagger with a three from the corner extending Greece´s lead to 61-44 with 1:53 remaining in the third.
Greece, who took a 64-48 lead into the fourth quarter, started sloppy with a pair of turnovers, but Germany came up empty on two of three possessions.
Papaloukas, who was selected to the 2005 EuroBasket All-Tournament Team, was again the man of the night, connecting on a driving lay-up to put Greece up 68-50 with 6:57 to go in the fourth and all that remained in doubt from that point on was how loud the celebration would be.
“We dreamed of this,” said Papaloukas. “I was 10 years old when coach´s team won. Now we realize we can do the same for Greeks kids. This is one of the greatest moments of our career.”
The fans at the beginning of the game had witnessed a nervous start.
Both teams opened tentatively through the first seven minutes as Germany committed seven turnovers and as a result took only four field goal attempts. Greece were two of their first nine but then made five of their last six shot attempts in the quarter to jump out to a 19-12 lead.
Sven Schultze came off the bench to score four points and the Germans were fortunate to only be down seven after finishing the quarter with more turnovers (seven) than field goals attempts (six).
Greece went on a 9-2 second quarter run to open up a 10-point lead with 5:47 to go in the half. Captain Michail Kakiouzis scored five during the spurt with a three-pointer and put-back.
The teams exchanged baskets for the rest of the second quarter. Nowitzki´s three-pointer as the second quarter buzzer sounded allowed Germany to go into their halftime locker room with a bounce in their step.
When it was over, Niko Zisis had scored 13 points and Kakiouzis 11 in a dominant team performance.
Germany, who used hot three-point shooting to advance to the medal round, shot just three-of-16 from downtown and committed 21 crucial turnovers for the game.
Demonstrating the improbability of Greece´s gold medal run, even Yannakis said prior to the tournament that a top-six finish and berth to the FIBA World Championship was the goal, anything higher being a significant feat.
Well, Greece did more than just a significant feat, considering that they took out Russia, France and Germany in the quarters, semis and final to claim the gold. Each of those teams was led by top NBA players in Andrei Kirilenko, Tony Parker and Nowitzki respectively.
For Germany, a silver medal was beyond the expectations of many, and even themselves. Coach Dirk Bauermann said it would be difficult to finish in the top six, so clearly the Germans can take away many positives from their second medal ever in EuroBasket.
“No one expected us to get this far, so it´s an accomplishment we got this far,” said Nowitzki.
They had won gold in 1993.
The Greeks have now won four medals overall.
Greece and Germany go for the 2005 EuroBasket gold on Sunday in a battle of two teams looking to etch their name in the annals of European basketball - and rewrite their own history books.
Greece have already guaranteed their best finish since the silver medal in 1989. But the Greeks would love to repeat their only EuroBasket crown of 1987 when current coach Panagiotis Yannakis was a player in the final in Greece.
"He's an excellent example for us," Greek captain Michail Kakiouzis said of Yannakis. "We grew up with this generation. We were all young and started playing basketball when they were playing. They give us a lot of passion and heart."
Guard Theodoros Papaloukas added: "He (Yannakis) helps us have a vision. Most of us started playing when the national side were winning the title. And now they keep telling us to believe in ourselves and have faith."
|Panagiotis Yannakis inspired a whole generation of Greek basketball players with gold in 1987|
When asked which result is more meaningful - the 1993 title or making it to the 2005 final, Bauermann said: "It doesn't matter. That team had a great success back then. This is just as big. That was in Munich. This is on the road."
Bauermann said that he has always felt Germany could do big things in this tournament.
"From the first day I took over, it was my dream to play Serbia & Montenegro in the final and beat them in front of their own fans. I always felt we were good enough to get to the final But still I have to pinch myself," the coach said.
Sunday's sold-out finale at the Belgrade Arena is not one very many people expected. But both teams have used stifling defense to reach the gold medal game. And the intangibles will likely decide the encounter.
"They're patient like us. They have a good combo of inside outside game," Bauermann said of the Greek team. "It will be mind over matter. Whichever team finds heart and energy to control the defensive boards will win the game."
Bauermann's team says it's still full of energy despite Sunday's game being their seventh in 10 days.
"There's not much time to relax. But we'll be ready to go," Nowitzki said. "This is the gold medal."
The Greeks are also playing their seventh game in 10 days, and Papaloukas has no concerns about being tired.
When asked if the team will be tired, he said. "We're living our dream. What do you think? Do we look tired? We're full of energy. And any energy that we lost we'll get from our fans."
Obviously, Dirk Nowitzki will be a key to the game for Bauermann. But only a team game - around Nowitzki - can bring Germany glory.
"These guys are a team. They're players who play the game right," Bauermann said. "They play team defense and care about each other and about winning.
When you do that and have a superstar like Dirk Nowitzki you can be very good."
The Greeks admit they don't have one go-to-guy like the Germans have with Nowitzki. But that doesn't concern them either.
"We're in the final, and it's one game. Maybe it will be my turn to step up," said Kakiouzis, who scored just three points in the semi-final against France and is averaging just 6.7 points in the post. "But anybody on this team can beat you."
Sunday's contest will also be a contest of teams who have gotten well acquainted this summer.
Greece beat Germany twice in the preparation for this tournament - in Germany and Greece.
Bauermann said those losses turned out to be a good thing.
"Sometimes losses pull a team apart, and sometimes they pull a team toghether - like those did for us."
The coaches also know each other.
"I've known coach (Yannakis) for a long time," Bauermann said. "We played against each other in the Euroleague."
One of those coaches will get the glory on Sunday of coaching a team to a EuroBasket title.