|Dario Saric waited for the biggest stage to come up with his most impressive performance - a triple double of 30 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. |
by Yarone Arbel
For the first time since 1995 Croatia won the gold medal in the U16 European Championship after an 80-52 win over Lithuania at Sports Hall Topolica in Bar, Montenegro on Sunday night.
This is only the second gold medal by the Croats in the U16 tournament and their second medal overall.
Lithuania will have to settle for the silver medal for the second year in a row but became the first team to appear three times in a row in the final in the 21st century, and won a medal in the U16 tournament for the fourth year in a row after picking Bronze in 2007.
The Croat team that won the title 15 years ago presented to the world a future legend as Nikola Vujcic while the 2010 version displayed one special kid that could reach greatness if he continues in his progress - Dario Saric.
This is already his second U16 tournament and actually only two weeks ago he finished playing with the U18 national team, before joining the younger squad only few days before the tip off in Bar, but in the last 10 days he has dominated the tournament more than anyone else.
His statistics in the gold medal game say it all with 30 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in addition to three blocks.
He's the second player ever to write a triple-double in an U16 title game, as the first was in 2006 to lead Spain to the title and that was no other than EuroBasket champion Ricky Rubio.
"We have Saric," said the champion coach Drazen Brajkovic in a quick, short yet very accurate analysis after the game.
"This is an unbelievable feeling I can't even describe it" said guard Mislav Brzoja with the basket's net around his neck and a huge smile on his face.
"Before we came here nobody believed in us, and some people back home didn't think we're going to survive the Preliminary Round but here we are now.
"I guess we made them think a bit now," he said with a winner's smile.
Along Saric on the scoring sheet stood out Filip Bundovic with 22 and the athletic Karlo Lebo with 12.
Lithuania saw 14 by Denis Krestinin, while Justas Tamulis added eight and Jokubas Gintvainis scored seven for the silver medal holders.
The Lithuanians made an upset by qualifying to the final, and very few assumed they can shock the Croatians with the title on the line.
They deserve a big applause for a great step up in the last two days, but also for their fighting spirit until the last minute in the final.
Despite the big gap from start to finish they kept fighting and at some points managed to put their rivals under pressure, forcing time outs to calm things down, but at the end of the day this title game was dominated by one side.
Croatia dominated the game from the very start and with a smashing start held a 21-2 lead to make it clear who's the boss on the court.
The first minutes told the whole story and Lebo with a huge dunk make it 7-0 to force Lithuania to call a timeout already after 90 seconds in hope things will change soon.
Yet, Croatia had different plans, and kept their machine running for the next minutes.
Bundovic finished a fast break with another dunk and now Lithuania made two quick subs to try and make things look different, but that didn't help as well.
Lukas Lekavicius scored the first points of Lithuania after more than five minutes, but it was a pair from the line and it took a while more before the first field goal game.
Saric warmed up with two assists and five points to make it 21-2 after 7:18 minutes, but the Croatian party was still going on.
Yet another Saric drive was followed by his fourth assist, this time to a big three pointer by Lebo to set the first quarter score on 30-6, as all of Lithuania's points came from the charity stripe.
Krestinin scored his first basket that was also Lithuania's inside the first minute of the second quarter, but Saric answered with a three pointer to set the gap now on 37-10, yet now it was time for Lithuania to show for the first time they are on the same court.
The full court pressure Lithuania attempted finally gave results as Tamulis and Krestinin led a 2-15 run to make it just a 14 point game.
Croatia understood quickly the game isn't over and their attempts to create show-time before easy points could cost them the game, but the momentum was already with Lithuania.
Grigonis scored his first points from the arc and made it just a single point gap, 41-32 close to the half time break, but Saric added another three pointer to lead a 6-0 run and give his team a 47-32 lead after 20 minutes.
The first minutes of the second half were about to decide the direction of the game, and when Saric connected four more points he created a 19 point advantage, 56-37 after 25 minutes.
Over two minutes of drought passed on both sides, but the first to wake up was the most dominating player on the court that with an assist to a Bundovic dunk and a three pointer capped the third quarter on a 65-39 score after writing already at that point 27 point, nine assists and 11 rebounds.
With such big gap it was way clear already entering the fourth quarter there's only one team that can take a gold medal today.
Saric used his last minutes on the court to complete his triple double, Coach Brajkovic made sure his stars will get the standing obviation before the celebrations kicked off on the court.