By Yarone Arbel
Once again the "Pionir" arena hosted an historic event in European basketball on Sunday.
Thousands of Slovenians were left celebrating after their national side qualified for the EuroBasket quarter-finals for the first time following a 68-58 win over France to finish on top of Group C with a perfect 3-0 record.
"I congratulate all my players for what they have shown here in the first three days of the games," said Slovenia coach Ales Pipan.
"All credit goes to them. I would also like to thank to the wonderful fans who cheered for us for three days."
The same fans stayed for many minutes after the game to cheer for their team.
|Slovenia have received a massive boost from their fans in Belgrade|
France's fans may have thought they would be the ones cheering after the first half, though.
Slovenia went the first two minutes and 20 seconds without scoring a point.
They finally got on the board when Bostjan Nachbar sank his first three-pointer of the night.
The lead switched hands six times during the first 10 minutes, and an arrow from downtown by Sanya Giffa in the closing seconds gave France a 15-12 lead when the buzzer sounded.
Antoine Rigaudeau, the veteran who helped France claim a silver medal at the 2000 Olympics, came off the bench to score five points in four minutes to cover for Tony Parker, who continued to struggle in this tournament. The San Antonio Spurs guard was 0-6 from the floor in the first half.
Jaka Lakovic was out of his rhythm in the first half for Slovenia, too, and that helped France take a 32-28 lead into the changing rooms, with Boris Diaw scoring Les Bleus' last four points of the half.
France managed to stay on top for three more minutes after the restart until Nachbar's mid-range jumper from the right gave Slovenia a 37-36 advantage.
A Sani Becirovic jump shot and two Lakovic free throws gave Slovenia a 41-36 lead and completed a 9-0 run the French never recovered from.
Pipan's players found their basketball karma, and once again showed their great passing game, rebounding tough defence.
France had no one to offer other than Diaw, and against a superb team it takes much more than that.
Despite the loss France, will play in the elimination round after finishing the first stage with a 1-2 record, but they must wait for the result of the game between Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina to find out their final ranking.
France missed Mickael Pietrus, who had to rest due to a knee injury, but suffered an even bigger absence on court in the shape of Parker, who once again finished the game with only two points after making just one of 12 shots.
Les Bleus, who lost to Greece in their opener before coming from behind to beat Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday, had another bad night from the line where they made only 10 out of 21.
They were even worse from three-point land, draining four of 17 shots.
The rebounding, as usual, was crucial. France held their own in the first half, but in the second half Slovenia had total domination under their basket.
The winners held a 45-39 lead in rebounds at the end of the game.
"We tried to fight, but we had to fight 40 minutes to win and we didn't do that," said Rigaudeau.
"We made two to three mistakes and let the Slovenians take control of the game."
Lakovic may have suffered a bad first half but after doubling his six points from the first 20 minutes in the third quarter, he opened the last quarter with another three-pointer from the corner to give Slovenia their first double digit lead at 56-44.
That is when Slovenia's fans started their celebrations.
Lakovic finished with 18 points, Radoslav Nesterovic had the first double-double of Group C with 12 points and 10 rebounds and Nachbar scored nine.
Boris Diaw once again led the French side with 16 points and seven rebounds (although he was a woeful 0 of 11 from the free throw line), while Antoine Rigaudeau had 12 points.