By Kevin Anselmo
Behind the clutch shooting of Matej Mamic and strong second half defense, Croatia held of a gutsy effort from Bulgaria to win 88-84 in the first game of the Group B Preliminary Round in Podgorica.
A close game throughout, Mamic's three-pointers with 3:48 and 1:35 secured Croatia´s hard fought victory and off-set a 27-point performance from Bulgaria's Todor Stoykov. Croatia's second half defense on Stoykov was a key to Croatia's victory as the Bulgarian team captain was held to six points.
"He was tired," Croatian head coach Neven Spahija said of his team´s second half defensive effort against Stoykov. “It's impossible to play the way he did in the first half for an entire game. But we did better switching and putting pressure on him so he couldn't have as much space to shoot.”
"In the second half, Croatia´s defense stepped up and put more pressure on me,” Stoykov said.
“I also was in foul trouble and couldn't be as aggressive.”
Gordan Giricek led Croatia with 22 points, while Mamic finished with 20 and Zoran Planinic 16.
“We won a very difficult game,” said Mario Kasun, who grabbed a Croatian team high eight rebounds. “They (Bulgaria) are an excellent team.”
Playing in a EuroBasket game for the first time since 1993 and in front of a large contingent of their own fans, Bulgaria opened in a strong fashion against a significantly taller and more experienced Croatian team. They led 24-21 after the first quarter behind 12 points and a pair of assists from Stoykov. The pesky Bulgarian defense caused 12 first quarter Croatian turnovers.
Bulgaria added to their game total in the second quarter, punctuated by a Stoykov three point basket from well beyond the three point line as time expired, giving him 21 for the half. Stoykov connected on four three-pointers in the half.
Planinic, after sitting out the final 7 :25 of the second quarter, opened third quarter scoring with a three point basket and a break away dunk to give his team a one point lead. Giricek also turned up his offense, scoring 11 in the quarter. Bulgaria, with its three-point shooting and gritty downlow play, kept the game close and still maintained a one-point lead at the end of the quarter.
In the end though, it was too much Croatian scoring power down the stretch of the fourth quarter, which prevented Bulgaria from winning their first EuroBasket game since 1989.
“In the first half, we took quick shots and didn´t take advantage of our size advantage,” Spahija said. “In the second, we changed this.”
“I thought Croatia was one of the favourites to win EuroBasket prior to playing them and I still think the same after having played them,” Bulgarian head coach Rossen Barchovski said.
Croatia will look to improve to 2-0 on Saturday when they take on Lithuania, while Bulgaria will play against Turkey.
NOTES : The Opening Ceremony for the games in Podgorica were held before the start of the Lithuania-Turkey tip-off. Group B Technical Commissioner Marek Pazucha of Poland declared the opening of the games following a dance routine and the marching of the four participating teams ... Bulgaria's last EuroBasket win was a 91-86 decision over the Netherlands in 1989. .... Angelov Dimitrov and Filip Videnov also scored in double digits for Bulgaria, with 12 points and 11 respectively.