By Kevin Anselmo
A three-pointer by Dimitrios Diamantidis three seconds from the end set off a thunderous celebration in the Belgrade Arena on Saturday night as the Greeks fought back from a seven-point deficit in the final minute to stun France 67-66 and advance to the gold medal game.
France, closing in on appearance in the title game for the first time in six decades, self-destructed as both Tony Parker and captain Antoine Rigaudeau missed important free throws to leave the door open for a Greek comeback.
After Rigaudeau made just one of two from the line with 11 seconds remaining, Greece inbounded the ball to Nikos Zisis who raced up the floor and towards the basket before kicking the ball out to Diamantidis who never hesitated when releasing his left-handed shot which hit the bottom of the net.
France gave the ball to Rigaudeau who dribbled to midcourt and attempted to launch a desperation shot but guarded by Greece players, he was called for traveling as time expired setting off a joyous celebration from Greek players and thousands of their fans in attendance.
“Thank God,” said Diamantidis after his heroics. “I wasn't thinking about anything when I shot it. Nothing.”
|Antoine Rigaudeau made some costly errors down the stretch|
“There are no words to describe what Dimitrios did – he is amazing,” said Nikolaos Zisis, who scored 11 points, including three big free throws with 40 seconds remaining that allowed Greece to stay close and cut the French lead to 62-58.
Greece, who famously won gold in 1987 and then silver in 1989, are back in the title game and will face the winner of Spain´s semi-final with Germany.
“This is basketball,” said Greece´s team captain Michail Kakiouzis. “We never stopped fighting and always believed in oursleves and then got a little luck in the end.”
Parker was brilliant in the first half and led all scorers with 20 points, while center Lazaros Papadopolous had 15 for Greece and Dimosthenis Ntikoudis finished with 14.
France seemed to be cruising towards their first EuroBasket medal game appearance since 1935 after Parker drained a three-pointer with 1:12 reamining to give the French a 58-51 advantage in a game that was neck-and neck throughout. But Parker clanked a pair of free throws with 38 seconds to go and commited a turnover eight seconds later.
Papadopoulos´ dunk with 26 seconds to go cut the deficit to two at 62-60. Parker was fouled a second later and this time the San Antonio Spurs point guard hit both. Papaloukas scored again down low and Rigadeau connected on one of two as the French still maintained a 65-62 lead.
Papaloukas was fouled with 13 seconds to go and hit both and then fouled Rigadeau with 11 seconds, setting the stage Diamantidis to be an unlikely Greek hero.
The three for Diamantidis was his seventh point of the game and the 25-year old entered play averaging six a game.
For the third consecutive game, French coach Claude Bergeaud elected to keep Tony Parker on the bench and Greece jumped out to a 7-2 lead to start the game and led 16-14 after one.
Parker entered the game with 3:39 to go in the first and played solidly, scoring 13 in the opening half.
The first half was a defenensive struggle as the teams exchanged leads with no team having an advantage of more than five points.
Parker's three-pointer as time expired in the second quarter gave France a 30-29 halftime lead. France led despite 2-of-10 shooting from three-point range and 12 turnovers.
The trend continued in the third as France and Greede stayed neck-and-neck with no team leading by more than three for the entire quarter and France clinging to a 45-44 advantage.
With Parker taking a fourth quarter breather, Greece took a 47-46 lead on a three by Nikolaos Chatzivrettas in the opening minutes of the quarter. Parker returned and France went on a 9-2 run to open a 55-49 lead with 2:26 remaining before the final dramatic minutes unfolded.
France will try to win their first bronze since 1959 when they take on the loser of the Germany-Spain match-up.