By David Hein
Slovenian coach Ales Pipan acknowlegded his team's victory against Croatia and the country's first berth at the FIBA World Championships with eight seconds remaining in Saturday's first semi-final.
The coach raised a fist into the air towards the crowd with the team leading 88-80 and Jaka Lakovic heading to free throw line. Behind him, his assistants and the players on the bench were arm-in-arm jumping up and down.
Lakovic hit one of two free throws for the final 89-80 score as Slovenia knocked off Croatia to clinch a spot for the 2006 FIBA World Championships - the first time ever for the small nation of 2 million residents.
"This is a great feeling. It feels more important than a gold medal," said New Orleans Hornets forward Bostjan Nachbar. "It's an achievement for our whole country. We finally proved to the world that we're a basketball power."
He added: "There's only one way for us, and that's up. We're still very young. And this is the best generation Slovenia have ever had."
|Slovenia thank their fans|
Slovenian guard Sani Becirovic said the streets of Belgrade will play host to one big Slovenian party. When asked where the party will be tonight, he said: "All over Belgrade. I hope the Slovenian fans don't feel angry if we don't play our best game tomorrow (against Lithuania for fifth and sixth place). But we want to meet about 60 percent of the fans and party with them."
The Slovenian fans came out in droves and proved helpful to their national team.
"They were our sixth and seventh man," Becirovic said. "We have to thank them for coming out in such big numbers and helping us in some difficult times."
Jaka Lakovic added: "This is also for our fans. More than 5,000 people came from Slovenia, and we know how it feels to have them here."
The Slovenian players admitted it was difficult to recover from their disappointing loss to Germany in the quarter-finals on Friday.
"It was really hard coming back," Nachbar said. "I kept telling myself hundreds of times to forget about it. But it kept coming back up."
Becirovic said it was difficult to get up for the game, but perhaps not as difficult for the Croatians.
"They thought they were in the semi-finals, and then they had to play against us."
Slovenia will play their first ever World Championships in Japan next summer.
When asked if the team can make an impact there, Nesterovic said: "Why not? We showed we can play with the best in Europe."
Becirovic said: "Our main goal was to reach the World Champiornships. And we've done that for the first time. It'll be our first chance on the big stage.
"We're not expecting a lot there. We're just getting the experience. But the next EuroBasket will be ours. We'll all have the experience from the World Championships, and we'll all be about 25-27 years old."
And have one big Belgrade party to remember.