Slovenia are the 2004 European Champions for U20 Men. In 2002 they suffered heartbreak, losing in desperately close fashion to Croatia, who made 2 free throws at the buzzer to win 74:72.
In 2004, it was Slovenia who closed the game by making not only several clutch shots, but 6 free throws in the last 30 seconds to close out Israel.
"The guys that lost in Germany (in 2002) told us that we have to win this one for them. In the last two minutes we gave a big team effort, and won the game," said Slovenian forward Sasa Zagorac.
Neither Israel nor Slovenia found their top form in the final, but what the game lacked in quality it made up for in sheer excitement.
Israel had their chances to win and actually led the game for the best part of 20 minutes. But as has been Slovenia’s trademark in this competition, they peaked just at the perfect time and they took their first lead of the second half with 33 seconds to go.
|Erazem Lorbek receives the trophy from FIBA Europe President George Vassilakopoulos|
Point guard Jure Mocnik made probably the 3 most important plays of his life in the last minute. First he hit a three to tie the game at 58:58. He followed that with a drive that gave Slovenia the lead, 60:59, and capped that with 2 free throws to nail 7 points in 30 seconds which effectively won the game for his team.
"It's an amazing feeling. After we lost the finals in the Juniors we had to win this one. We played like a team the whole time. I fouled out but my teammates did a great great job," said Erazem Lorbek, who was elected tournament MVP.
Israel gave 110% in the game and can hold their heads high with the performance. They came back from a terrible start in which they trailed 16:4 after 5 minutes of play in the first quarter.
Just as it looked as though Slovenia would run away with the game, Israel found the kind of togetherness which has marked their run to the final.
Behind by 12 points after the opening period, they reeled off 13 straight to open the second. Lior Eliyahu continued his streak of form from the semis and 2 free throws from Igor Simin gave Israel their first lead, 20:21.
Both sides traded baskets for the remainder of the first half, but it was Israel who nosed ahead, 30:32 at the break.
It was Israel who carried over the momentum from their second quarter comeback (they outscored Slovenia 10-24 in the period). Interestingly enough, it was not until midway through the third that Yotmar Halperin scored his first points of the game. His offensive talents were clearly not needed and he was happy to sit back and let his team-mates shoulder the load.
Halperin’s first scoring contribution came on a steal and breakaway lay-up. He followed that with another steal and assist to Vladi Eyrmishin that capped an 8:0 run and Israel led by 12 points, 33:45.
Slovenia’s comeback was steady rather than spectacular.
They chipped away at Israel’s lead and by the end of the third trailed by 5, 45:50.
It was just when they were finding their feet that disaster struck for Slovenia and Erazem Lorbek fouled out. It wasn’t clear who would step up for the Slovenians on offense, but Sasa Zagorac hit a jump shot and 2 free throws and the lead was just three, 55:58.
It was at that point that Mocnik weighed in. His play up until that point had been patchy at best, and he had made just 2/6 free throws in the 4th period. Still, when he found himself behind the 3-point line with acres of space (he even had time to take a dribble before shooting), he didn’t hesitate. His shot found nothing but net and the game was tied, 58:58.
"I can't explain what I feel now. it's an incredible feeling," said Mocnik after the game.
"My coach told me just to keep playing like I play in Slovenia, and the shots I took went in."
Israel answered with a free throw but Mocnik replied with a drive and basket and Slovenia had the lead with 33 seconds to go.
After a time-out, Halperin took a shot in the lane for Israel which missed and with under
24 seconds on the clock, Israel were forced to foul.
|Jure Mocnik was huge in the clutch for Slovenia|
Unfortunately for Israel, Raviv Limonad got a bit too enthusiastic on his foul attempt and he was called for an intentional on Mocnik.
The Slovenian point guard made both, Slovenia retained possession and Israel was forced to foul once again. The intentional foul was without a doubt the key play of the game, and Slovenia held their nerve to hit 6/6 free throws to hold on for gold.
Our team has so many leaders - my brother Domen, Jure Mocnik, they carried us to the win," added Lorbek
"We managed to stop Halperin but he's a big player. We are the best team in this championship."
Lorbek finished as the top scorer for Slovenia, although he was limited to 29 minutes before fouling out. He had 15 points while Mocnik also finished with 15.
Israel had a poor shooting night and made just 38% of their field goal attempts (22/57). Limonad top scored with 14 but Halperin could only manage 8 on 2/12 shooting. After 2 heroic performances with a badly sprained ankle, Halperin couldn’t rescue his team for the third time in 3 games.