By Yarone Arbel
Only five days ago imagining Spain in the finals of the Omnitel U16 European Championship would have feel like a pretty bizarre scenario.
Latvia was just about to finish sweeping the Spanish team on the way to an 85-58 win in the Qualifying Round.
Spain seemed more than lost in that game and was down 14-0 from the start.
As time passed by things only got worse.
The following day came their second loss in a row when France beat them, but once the Final Round started,
things looked totally different for the squad of coach Diego Ocampo.
Tonight against the home team of Lithuania it'll be decided which color of medal they'll have around their necks.
Lithuania will try to be the first team to win the U16 title in back-to-back years since Yugoslavia's four gold medals streak was stopped in 2003.
Spain, won have already won six silver medals, the last of them in 2007, will fight to win their second ever gold medal, after the first came in 2006.
That medal is stoned in the history books of Spain and the U16 championships, as the finals was an unforgettable match in which Spain beat Russia 110-106 after double overtime, behind a 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists and seven steals display of a 15 year old kid by the name Ricky Rubio.
To have something in common with the Olympic silver medal winner Rubio can't be a bad thing.
Defense is more of a team effort, and those are the two big qualities of Spain here - tough defense and great team play.
More than anything else the Spanish players seem like they are having big fun on court, and winning is just a bonus.
For that reason fibaeurope.com caught not one, but two of the Spanish players - guard Jaime Fernandez and big
guy Daniel Diez - to hear more about what it feel to be inside such a united group.
Fernandez, an athletic shooting guard who leads his team in assists (2.9 - 14th in the championship) and steals
(2.5 - 7th), kept his best offensive display for the semis when he scored 20 points in addition to four steals and four assists.
His defense on Serbia's Nenad Miljenovic and Aleksandar Cvetkovic should set an example to all guards in this
|Jaime Fernandez has been a key cog in the Spain machine.|
Diez is an inside guy who plays here more of a center, but his future is probably in the power forward spot.
Nevertheless he was the most consistent player on the Spanish team and leads his group in points (13.5),
rebounds (5.4) and is ranked first in the whole competition in field goal percentages at 65.6%.
"We have a saying in Spain that you stick together like a pineapple, and that's how we feel in this team," says Fernandez.
"All 12 players on the team are very good friends of each other, so it's easier for us to play like that."
In youth events often the biggest fans of the visiting teams are the players' families who traveled to support their loved ones, yet rarely all 12 families are represented.
The Spanish team is unique in that, and just another example for how different they are in their unity.
Tonight these few dozen loud fans from Spain will try to overcome thousands of Lithuanians, but on court it will stay five-on-five.
"It's my first European Championship, and the fact we made it to the finals in the first tournament is a very big thing for me, but now that we're here we want to win it all." confessed Diez.
"It won't be easy to play against so many fans that support their team all the game, and that's a big handicap, but we have no plans to give up because of that," added Fernandez.
After the two losses something has changed in Spain, and they have upgraded their defense.
Two great defensive displays with a 57-41 win over Turkey in the quarters and limiting the star guards of Serbia in the 88-75 semis win put Spain on the podium.
"Against Latvia we weren't focused, but that game helped us to learn things about ourselves, and what we need to improve to make it big," says Diez.
"Coach Ocampo told us we need to work harder on defense if we want to avoid more losses, and that's what we do now."
Tonight, against a motivated home team with lots of momentum, Spain's defense and team play will have to make one more step up to win a gold medal and be at least on one same list with Rubio.