by Dan Casey
|Mario Hezonja was sensational in the first half, scoring 18 points for Croatia|
Defending champions Croatia survived a tense finale to beat Spain 64-60 and advance to the gold-medal game.
Croatia held a 9-point lead with 1:58 remaining but scores from Adria Cantenys, Ferran Ventura and an off-balance three-pointer from Alberto Martin cut the lead to three, 63-60 with 14 seconds remaining.
Tomislav Gabric, who had been scoreless before, sunk the crucial free throw and Croatia's defense kept the Spanish team at bay to secure victory.
With Croatia as one of the tournament's best offenses taking on the tightest defense in the competition, Croatian coach Ante Nazor took time to praise his team's own defense after they held Spain to just 33% shooting in the game: "We saw two different philosophies today. But our offense worked well, and we've proved our good defensive work in recent wins."
Mario Hezonja scored 18 points in the first half on his way to a game-high 24 points, adding 5 assists. Coach Nazor was proud of Hezonja's performance: "He has been a strong leader for us all competition. He showed great responsibility today."
Paolo Marinelli added 13 points, though both he and Hezonja had 8 turnovers as the Spanish defense put them under plenty of pressure. Karlo Zganec contributed all-round for Croatia with 11 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocked shots.
Ilimane Diop led Spain with 16 points, 9 rebounds and 4 steals, with Javier De La Blanca adding 12 points.
Diop scored Spain's first four points, but Marinelli scored Croatia's first basket with a three-pointer and Hezonja hit another to give Croatia an early 6-4 lead.
Cantenys and Agusti Sans missed straightforward baskets and Croatia took a 15-13 lead at the end of the period on Dorian Jelenek's jump-shot. Hezonja began the second period with a breakaway dunk, but Carlos Garcia scored consecutive baskets and then De La Blanca's energy off the bench brought him three straight baskets as the Croatian offense floundered.
Trailing 26-21, Hezonja hit another three-pointer and, after Martin's lay-up, Hezonja connected from long-range again before Diop picked up his third foul competing for a rebound.
With Diop sitting, the Croatian team scored the final five points of the half on yet another Hezonja triple and then Marko Arapovic's offensive rebound and put-back. 32-28 ahead at half-time, the Croatian lead grew to 10 at the start of the third period as they scored the first six points of the second half. First Marinelli scored a fast-break lay-up, then Hezonja took over again, providing for Arapovic before surging through the lane himself for a lay-up.
|Ilimane Diop was more than solid for Spain with 16 points and 9 rebounds|
Sans hit a jumper to break the Spanish drought, and De La Blanca found Diop inside for a dunk to bring the score back to 38-32, a six-point lead for Croatia.
Diop got another dunk later in quarter from a nice pass by Ignasi Moix, and finished the three-point play by converting the free throw. De La Blanca scored from a Diop pass with 15 seconds remaining in the third period to cut the lead to seven, 47-40 to Croatia.
Spain pushed and De La Blanca's offensive rebound and put-back cut the lead to five, but then Domagoj Bosnjak converted one of two free throws, and from the miss Karlo Zganec claimed the offensive rebound, scored and was fouled. The free-throw put Croatia ahead 55-46.
The Spanish defense switched to a zone to slow down the Croatian offense, but Hezonja simply stepped outside and drained a long three-pointer, his fifth of the game, to keep his side on top. But the zone defense put pressure on Croatia, and a pass from Cantenys inside to Jose Nogues cut the lead to 7 and prompted a time-out from coach Nazor.
Spain came out of the time-out with a full-court press, but Hezonja's inbound pass found an open Bosnjak for a dunk to extend the lead to 9 points and set up the tense final two minutes.
Coach Nazor looked ahead to Sunday's final, with his team still unbeaten in the competition: "We played France on Wednesday, and we played the Czech Republic three times in preparation. We are ready for both teams, there are no surprises for us."