By Kevin Anselmo
Spain took advantage of an injured and foul plagued Croatia to win an an overtime thriller in the last EuroBasket quarter-final to stay on course for a medal and secure their place at the FIBA World Championship 2006.
Fran Vazquez came to the rescue for Spain with an offensive rebound and put-back to send the game to overtime and then teamed up with Juan Carlos Navarro in a controversial extra period to seal a 101-85 triumph.
Croatia played an amazing game despite losing star point guard Zoran Planinic and center Mario Kasun to injuries in the first quarter, but as the game started to slip away in the final minute of overtime, so did the composure of coach Neven Spahija, who drew a technical foul, and Marko Popovic, who was ejected.
Navarro had 36 points for Spain, but the man of the match was Vazquez, who might well have jumped out of a telephone booth and donned a cape for the team because he played like Superman.
He finished with 26 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. After missing his first two free throws, he made his next eight.
Croatia could hardly contain their anger before the final whistle, with Spahija crossing mid-court to argue with the referees and then Popovic popping off and earning an early shower.
The reason for the Croatian fury was the disparity in fouls. Spajija´s team were whistled for 37 fouls to 14 for Spain. Spain took advantage, making 38-of-49 attempts from the free throw line to Croatia's eight-of-12.
A technical committee will review the incidents at the end of the game and determine if Popovic will be banned from their classification game on Saturday against Slovenia.
Spain, with the technical fouls at the end, made the score looking more convincing that it should have.
Whatever happened in the final minute should not tarnish an otherwise excellent contest.
Croatia will remember they led 73-70 after Croatia's Marko Tomas hit on one of two free throws with 12 seconds to go.
Croatia fouled Navarro with seven seconds on the clock. Navarro made the first free throw but missed the second.
Croatia couldn't control the rebound and Vazquez snuck in, picked up the loose ball and scored on a put-back just on the edge of the lane to tie the game with three seconds to go.
Tomas received a pass and instead of shooting passed to Gordan Giricek but the Utah Jazz player didn't get his three-pointer off in time before the buzzer, forcing overtime.
Both teams started well in the extra period with the lead exchanging hands during the first three minutes.
But Spain eventually took command under two minutes to go as Vazquez hit a pair of free throws, Croatia's Nikola Vujcic missed an inside shot and Calderon connected on a lay-up for an 86-83 lead.
Giricek, who scored a team-high 17 points, was called for an offensive foul and then a defensive foul on Spain´s next possession.
After Navarro hit two free throws to give Spain an 88-83 lead with 47 seconds remaining, the wheels came off for Croatia. The two fouls were Giricek´s fourth and fifth, sending him to the bench for the remainder of the contest.
Another Croatian miss followed by a controversial foul call on Tomas allowed Navarro to go to the foul line. Spahija unloaded on the officials, Popovic unloaded the officials and the atmosphere soured on court as Spain stretched their lead with the technical foul shots for a 16-point win.
Croatia must have felt they were on their way to the semi-final in the first half as they were in control, especially early with Kasun in excellent form.
Zoran Planinic looked powerful as he drove Croatia forward, but when he rolled his ankle on a drive to the basket with just over seven minutes to go, Spahija inserted Popovic in his place and had to do without Planinic.
He returned to play in the second quarter but was a non-factor on a gimpy ankle and did not even come to the bench for the second half.
Even without their point guard, Spain could not take advantage as they started ice cold from the field, hitting just one of their first 13 field goal attempts. A Jorge Garbajosa three as time expired in the first cut Croatia´s lead to 18-11.
Without their big man Kasun, who also left with an ankle injury, other Croatians came to the fore.
A steal by 20-year-old Roki-Leni Ukic resulted in a Giricek lay-up for a 28-17 advantage with 3:54 remaining in the half.
Spain outscored Croatia 8-2 over the next three minutes, but Marko Popovic hit a deep three as time expired to break the Spanish momentum and give his team a 33-25 first half edge.
Croatia, with the injuries and fouls keeping Nikola Vujcic off the floor, couldn't continue at their pace from the first half. Spain went on a 13-5 run to start the third quarter, capped by a three-point play by Navarro which tied the game at 38. A steal by Carlos Jimenez resulted in a lay-up for Calderon and Spain had their first lead of the game at 42-40 midway through the third.
Overall for the quarter, Spain outscored Croatia 30-20.
Croatia didn´t fold though as Ukic, who will play for Tau Ceramica next season, provided a spark off the bench, scoring 11 in the quarter. His three-pointer as time expired in the third cut Spain´s lead to 55-53.
Giricek hit a driving lay-up to give Croatia a brief fourth quarter lead, but Spain quickly responded as Juan Navarro hit a three-pointer and lay-up to put the Spanish out in front by 62-58 with 4:27 to go in the game.
Following a Vazquez bucket at the 3:46 mark, Giricek connected on a lay-up and was fouled. He nailed the free-throw and brought Croatia within one at 3:29. Giricek then hit a runner and Croatia re-took the lead with 2:26 remaining.
After Juan Navarro hit on one of two free throws to tie the game, Marko Popovic drained a long three-pointer from the top of the key to give Croatia a three-point lead with just under two minutes.
Garbajosa hit one of two free throws with Spains next possession and Mamic missed a three on Croatia´s next offensive trip.
Vazquez then tied the game with a hook shot with just over a minute to go.
Seldom used Tomas fed Mamic for a lay-up down low and Croatia had a two-point lead with 47 seconds to go.
Vujcic stole the ball 12 seconds later and Tomas was immediately fouled. He calmly sank two free throw s for his first points of the game and his fourth points of the tournament.
Following an acrobatic Vazquez dunk with 28 seconds remaining, Tomas was once again fouled, setting the stage for the dramatic moments at the end of regulation which saw Spain force the overtime.
Spain will take on Germany in the semi-final on Saturday, while Croatia battle Slovenia in a pivotal classification game. A victory will still allow Croatia to qualify for the FIBA World Championship for the first time since 1994.