By Jeff Taylor
Spain and Serbia will square off for the second time at EuroBasket 2009 when they meet in Sunday's gold-medal game showdown in Katowice.
The Serbians, who won the first encounter 66-57 in Warsaw, defeated Slovenia in overtime on Saturday night to advance to the title game while Spain hammered Greece in their Semi-Final.
Serbia have been so good in Poland that it's easy to forget how far they have come in a short space of time.
|Milos Teodosic should keep Ricky Rubio busy on the defensive end of the floor.|
Just over a year ago, they were putting the finishing touches on a EuroBasket Division A campaign that saw them win seven of eight qualifying games.
At the same time, Spain were competing at the Beijing Games where they reached the Olympic final and ultimately suffered a narrow defeat to the United States.
Spain coach Sergio Scariolo has seen a lot of Serbia this year and is full of admiration for the team.
"Serbia is a hard, talented organized team that has players at every position," Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said.
"The fact that Serbia has assured themselves of a medal is good news for European basketball because it is one of the historic mothers of the sport.
"They have already beaten us in the Preliminary Round and that will help us to give them the respect they deserve."
In that first encounter, Serbia came up with 12 steals and blocked four shots.
They harassed the Spanish shooters non-stop for 40 minutes, which led to a woeful two of 19 (11%) shooting from long range and 18 of 42 (43%) inside the arc.
Pau Gasol, the leader of Spain who was coming off a finger operation and had not played in any of the warm-up games, missed his first seven free-throws before finishing one of eight.
Both sides finished 2-1 in the 'Group of Death' that also included Slovenia and Great Britain and made it to the next phase of the competition.
The turning point in Spain's season came after their 63-60 defeat to Turkey in the Qualifying Round Group F.
Trailing Lithuania 24-15 at the end of the first quarter, Spain finally shifted gears and began to play defense.
They reeled off 23 unanswered points to take the lead against the Baltic side and stormed to an 84-70 victory.
Pau Gasol had 19 points and eight rebounds, but the most telling statistics in that contest were the 12 steals Spain came up with and the six shots they blocked.
Gasol, who played 24 minutes in that game, had three of those blocks.
"We started the EuroBasket with a lack of rhythm and perhaps a little overconfident that results would come our way," Gasol said.
"But now we are enjoying a good time and we hope to continue like this until the final day."
If Serbia arrived in Poland without the star power of past tournaments and just one NBA player in their captain and center, Oklahoma City's Nenad Krstic, they sure have plenty of stars after this EuroBasket.
None is brighter than Milos Teodosic, their tough-as-nails point guard who scored 32 points in a game-winning performance against Slovenia on Saturday night.
The Olympiacos playmaker is only 22 years old but has played like a hardened veteran.
Teodosic hit six three-pointers against Slovenia, including one with 22 seconds remaining to knot the contest at 79-79 and send the game to overtime.
He is shooting an eye-popping 43.9% (18 of 41) from three-point range.
On a team that is ranked 10th in that department at 33.5%, his accuracy shows how important he is to the Serbian offensive attack.
His teammate and close friend, Novica Velickovic, said: "Milos Teodosic is one of the best point guards in Europe.
"What he did today was unbelievable. I'm so happy for him.
"This is a great thing for Serbian basketball and this new generation. "
Serbia know that Spain have most of the players in their squad that won the world title in 2006, and captured silver medals at EuroBasket 2007 and at last year's Olympics.
But they also remember opening night, when they upset them in Group C.
"Spain play much better now than in the beginning when we beat them," said Velickovic.
"It'll be difficult but we don't give up in advance."
Last Time Out: In the EuroBasket Semi-Finals, Spain defeated Greece 82-64 and Serbia won 96-92 in overtime against Slovenia.
Head-to-Head: Serbia defeated Spain 66-57 on the first night of EuroBasket 2009 in Warsaw, Group C.
Key Match-up: Ricky Rubio v Milos Teodosic. Teodosic dominated Rubio in the first meeting, particularly with his tenacious defense. Rubio has since recovered to become one of Spain's key players.
X-Factor: Kosta Perovic. The big man came off the bench and excelled on both ends of the floor for Serbia in the first half. Fouled seven times, he made 10 of 13 free-throws and scored 18 points while blocking three shots.
Key Stat: Rudy Fernandez leads the EuroBasket in steals with an average of 2.3 per game. Spain scored 15 points off turnovers in their win over Greece. Serbia made 32 of 39 (82%) free-throws in their overtime triumph over Slovenia.
Sounding Off: "We're one step away from our dream" - Spain's Pau Gasol after Saturday's Semi-Final win over Greece.