By Jeff Taylor
Russia survived in a thriller against F.Y.R. of Macedonia and Croatia escaped with a narrow victory over upset-minded Germany to advance to the EuroBasket 2009 Quarter-Finals.
Also on Tuesday, France edged Greece in their fight for first place in the group.
The results in Qualifying Round Group E have left France on top with Russia second, Greece third and Croatia fourth.
The four quarter-finalists are now just one win away from reaching the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey.
Russia, despite playing without CSKA Moscow stars JR Holden and Viktor Khyrapa, and EuroBasket 2007 MVP Andrei Kirilenko, have surprised a lot of people by reaching the last eight in Poland.
David Blatt's men followed up Qualifying Round triumphs over Croatia and Greece with a 71-69 win over the Macedonians.
"Maybe at the beginning of the tournament, few people believed in our team," Russia guard Anton Ponkrashov said.
"But we took a second step and now we're in the Quarter-Finals."
The Macedonians nearly forced overtime at the death.
Dimitar Mirakovski went to the line for F.Y.R.O.M. with seven seconds remaining and made the first free-throw to cut the deficit to two but he missed the second, and Russia grabbed the rebound.
However, Ponkrashov threw the ball out of bounds to hand possession back to F.Y.R. of Macedonia.
Jovica Arsic's team attacked the basket on the last play but Mirakovski missed a lay-up and Kelly McCarty grabbed the rebound for Russia as time expired.
The game was the last for F.Y.R.O.M. captain Vrbica Stefanov, who is retiring from the game.
"We played a great game," Stefanov said.
"I believe we played great defense. If we had played overtime, it would have been great. If we had won it, that would have been greater, but I'm still proud of us."
Russia are not the only national team without a superstar at the EuroBasket this year.
Germany have had to play without their talisman, Dirk Nowitzki, yet still had a solid tournament under coach Dirk Bauermann.
They faced Croatia in a do-or-die clash on Tuesday and suffered a 70-68 setback.
Lucca Steiger gave Germany their last lead at 57-54 when drilling a three-pointer with 7:16 remaining but they turned the ball over on their next six possessions.
During that streak of profligacy, Croatia's Roko-Leni Ukic split a pair of free throws and dunked to knot the contest at 57-57, and then made a go-ahead lay-up with 3:15 to play.
Veteran sharpshooter Marko Popovic followed by nailing a jump shot for Croatia to make it 61-57 with 2:47 to play and the Croatians stayed on top for the remainder of the contest although Germany never gave up.
After Patrick Femerling made two free-throws for Germany, Kresimir Loncar connected from behind the arc for a 64-59 Croatia lead.
Croatian Marko Banic made one of two free-throws, only for Germany's Heiko Schaffartzik to sink a long three-ball to reduce the deficit to 65-62 with 1:02 remaining.
Bauermann's team then had a chance to draw even closer when Ukic was off target with a jumper but they failed to box Banic out, who hauled in Ukic's miss and Zoran Planinic scored on a drive for a five-point edge.
Schaffartzik hit another three-pointer for Germany to close the gap to 67-65, but Bauermann's team had to foul Davor Kus to stop the clock and the Croatia guard made both free-throws for a 69-65 advantage 12 seconds from the end.
Demond Greene was off target with a three-pointer for Germany and Marin Rozic made one of two at the line for Croatia before Steffen Hamann ended proceedings with a three-pointer at the buzzer for Bauermann's team.
"We expected a tough game," Croatia coach Jasmin Repesa said.
"When we were losing 57-54, we didn't lose our heads and in the end we played some tough defense."
Croatia out-scored Germany 27-6 in points off turnovers and second-chance points.
While Croatia moved to within one victory of securing a spot at the FIBA World Championship, Germany's only chance of reaching the event is to receive one of the four wild cards to be presented by FIBA in December.
In the battle for first place, France defeated Greece 71-69 thanks to Nando De Colo's turn-around buzzer-beater.
Les Bleus, who had to win the Additional Qualifying Round to reach the EuroBasket, won their sixth game in a row in Poland.
Alain Koffi had 14 points and six rebounds for the French, who could face world champions Spain in the last eight.
France did not appear thrilled with a possible Quarter-Final meeting with Spain - their last-eight opponents if the world champions defeat Poland on Wednesday in Lodz.
Coach Vincent Collet played the entire fourth quarter with star Tony Parker on the bench but his team still managed to win.
"We played the fourth quarter without Tony Parker because first of all, we were playing well in that period and second of all, we knew how important the next game would be so we wanted key players to rest," Collet said.
The only way for France not to take on hosts Poland or Spain in the Quarter-Finals is for Lithuania to upset Serbia in Wednesday's first game.
In L'Equipe, Collet spoke about a possible meeting with Spain.
"Everybody has made projections, but we're not worried," he said.
"We know that this first place will surely lead us to meet Spain if the logic is respected.
"For now, the logic is often not respected. It would be a bit unfair if it was Spain for us because we won the first six games but they will face perhaps the strongest team in the opposing group."
Whoever France and Russia take on, they will have the advantage of a day's rest since those games will be played on Thursday.
The other four teams to reach the Quarter-Finals will come out of Qualifying Round Group F on Wednesday.