|Kaspars Vecvagars did not let his finger injury influence his game and led Latvia to victory|
Latvia turned it up a notch just as Montenegro was running out of steam on Friday to reach a 78-73 victory and punch their ticket to the semi-finals of the Sportland U20 European Championship in Estonia.
TURNING POINT: Latvia had tried everything against the amazing Montenegrin zone defence but were shooting 2-of-12 from three-point range and trailing by four points when Kaspars Vecvagars took matters into his own hands and, in an exhibition of penetrating skills, drove to the basket and finished at the rim three times within 77 seconds to give the Latvians a 39-37 lead at half-time, their first in the game.
GAME HEROES: Vecvagars was battling with an injury that kept him out of action in Latvia's last two games, underwent individual training on Thursday but when he came off the bench on Friday he gave Latvia the push they needed to turn the clash around.
STATS DON'T LIE: Latvia picked up 16 offensive rebounds and scored 19 precious second-chance points when they were out of ideas on offence; Montenegro's second unit, once again, provided little help and the Balkan side only got seven points from their bench players, to Latvia's 26.
Montenegro came out on Friday determined to make a stand against a team that had previously only lost one game in the tournament and built a 22-12 lead midway through the opening period.
The Balkan side were first on every loose ball and employed a surprisingly pressing stretched-out zone that denied Latvia any passes inside, forcing them instead to resort often to long-range shots under pressure.
Latvia tried to solve their problem by pushing up the pace but were unable to get any score in transition either, as Montenegro would always return swiftly to their defensive end.
After Marko Mugosa was called for a technical foul, his fourth in the game, with still 3:21 left in the second quarter and Latvia failed even to capitalize fully on the free throws they were awarded, Vecgavars knew it was time to try something completely different against the Montenegrin zone and brought his team ahead with three individual plays, just in time for the half-time buzzer.
Latvia started off the second half seemingly in control of proceedings but Montenegro still had enough left in the tank for an assault.
Their excellent defence forced the Latvians to undergo a four-minute dry spell and Milos Latkovic drilled a three-pointer that capped a 7-0 run and restored them in the lead, 50-50 with 1:49 to play in the third quarter.
Janis Berzins however reacted immediately and converted an and-one play to tie the scores and, after each side wasted one possession, Vecgavars picked up his own rebound and scored to give Latvia a 52-50 lead at the end of the period.
Latvia had received fair warning from this short-lived crisis and were in no mood for a dramatic finale.
Vecgavars sparked and capped off a 16-2 Latvian run that took the now visibly tired Montenegrins by storm and granted them an unassailable 66-52 lead with 5:40 left on the clock.
Montenegro's pride rather than lungs proppeled them to a last heroic attempt that could only help them reduce the gap to a more fair 5-points at the end, as Latvia in reality stayed in control until the final buzzer.
Vecgavars led all scorers with 25 points and added five rebounds and two assists, while Andrejs Grazulis and Ojars Silins had 15 points each for Latvia, the former registering a double-double with a team-high 11 rebounds and the latter picking up seven boards.
Latkovic finished with a team-high 18 points for Montenegro, while Vukota Pavic, who was immense for his team in the first half, had 15 points and six rebounds in losing efforts.