by Dan Casey
|Mario Hezonja had to work hard for his points but proved unstoppable as he finished with 22 points and 8 rebounds|
Croatia secured first place in Qualifying Round Group F and a quarter-final against Russia with a 68-60 win over France.
In a thrilling encounter featuring plenty of quality defense, Mario Hezonja stole the show with 22 points and 8 rebounds, including Croatia's last 12 points in the final period.
Croatian coach Ante Nazor was full of praise for his opponents after the game: "They are the best team we've met on this side of the draw. They're good inside and outside and they have a strong bench."
A tight first quarter saw France held scoreless for the final 4:08 as Croatia established a 13-5 advantage and built on it on the second quarter with slick passing inside.
The French came roaring back behind Olivier Yao-Delon's offense, the forward grabbing 8 points at the end of the half to tie the score at 30-30.
Tough defense from both teams continued in the second half. France powered ahead 40-37 on Paul Rigot's dunk, but Croatia finished the third quarter with a 9-2 run, Ivan Bender's buzzer-beating three-pointer giving Croatia a 46-42 lead.
Tied at 52-52 in the final period, Tomislav Gabric recovered a broken play and flipped the ball in to put Croatia ahead, but Damien Inglis responded with two baskets. But in a game-changing moment, Inglis stole a Croatian inbound pass but then lost the ball. Gabric was again able to profit, and an angry reaction from Inglis earned him a technical foul, his 5th foul of the game.
Hezonja hit the technical foul free-throws and then drained two three-pointers to put Croatia 66-60 ahead, and the Croatian defense held on for victory.
Rigot top-scored for France with 18 points, and Inglis added 10 points and 7 rebounds. France now proceed to a quarter-final with Germany on Friday, and Croatia will play Russia. Coach Nazor's side are the only team without a loss so far and they hope to continue that record. "We are confident, but with huge caution. Friday is the important game for us now."