By Simon Wilkinson
If anyone still doubted whether the Spanish national team could play well without Pau Gasol, they got the answer from Juan Carlos Navarro and Jorge Garbajosa tonight in a 114-109 overtime win over Latvia.
Navarro scored 35 points and Garbajosa added 31, both of them spending considerable amount of time at the free-throw line as Spain made 51 of 63 foul shots.
The Spaniards opened the game much the same way as they did against Serbia & Montenegro, by taking an early lead and looking likely to make it a blowout.
Latvia got into early foul trouble and struggled to make shots as they fell behind by as many as 14 points by the end of the first quarter.
But as they did against Israel in their first game of the tournament, the Latvians made a strong run, with Sandis Valters, Kristaps Janicenoks and captain Roberts Stelmahers scoring at will from three-point territory.
Latvia outscored Spain 30-19 in the second period to cut Spain’s lead to three points by halftime.
They then tied the game several times in the second half, but could never take the lead as Navarro, Garbajosa and Jose Calderon answered every run they made with some timely baskets.
Latvia relied on their three-point shooting and it paid dividends for much of the game, but they were let down by their inability to make the few free-throws they were awarded late in the game and in overtime.
The game went into overtime when Valters made a three-pointer from the left wing in the closing seconds of regulation but it was to be his last basket of the game.
But again, Latvia could not capitalise on Spain’s rare mistakes and Stelmahers’ bad decisions and missed free-throws in the extra session swung the game in Spain’s favour for good.
“I am satisfied with the way the players played tonight. We fought hard to stay in the game and make it close until the end. But it’s one thing to keep it close and a completely different one to close it out. We couldn’t close it out,” said Latvia’s head coach Karlis Muiznieks.
“I can say that it was an entertaining game to watch, but it’s disappointing too because we had several chances to win and in the end luck was on Spain’s side. They did well to win and certainly got a lot of free-throw practice!”
Spain did not expect the game to be this close and were glad to win in the end.
“Latvia shot very well from outside and we found it hard to defend them a lot of the time. I think maybe we relaxed a bit too much after the first quarter and gave them a chance to get back in the game,” said Spain’s coach Mario Pesquero.
Spain attempted 20 free-throws in the first quarter alone as Latvia’s starters Aigars Vitols, Armands Skele and Martins Skirmans all picked up two fouls early, and the latter two even got their third still in the first period.
Navarro shot 22 of 24 from the free-throw line and Garbajosa was perfect going 14 of 14.
Sandis Valters led the way for Latvia with 28 points and Janicenoks added 25.
Felipe Reyes had a strong all around game for Spain with 18 points and 15 rebounds. Calderon chipped in with 15 points.