By Simon Wilkinson
Russia made more of their free-throw attempts down the stretch than France did and that proved the difference as David Blatt’s men won 75-71 to reach their first EuroBasket semi-final in 10 years.
With the game tied at 69-69, J.R. Holden hit both his shots from the line to edge his team ahead 71-69 with 24 seconds left to play.
Nine seconds later, France’s Boris Diaw – who once had an 0 for 11 performance from the foul line against Slovenia in this event two years ago – blew his chance to tie the score when he missed both attempts from the charity stripe.
|Spotty free throw shooting had Claude Bergeaud shaking his head.|
However, Zakhar Pashutin left the door open for Les Bleus when he did the same as Diaw.
Unfortunately for the 2005 bronze medallists, Tony Parker could only make one of two and Pashutin then made amends for his mistake by sinking a pair from the charity stripe to make it a 73-70 lead with four seconds left.
Russia fouled Parker again and the playmaker hit his first shot before intentionally missing the second in the hope that one of his team-mates getting an offensive rebound. But it wasn’t to be.
Holden admitted afterwards a lot of thought went into Russia's "fouling strategy" late in the game.
”We knew that France struggled a little bit from the free-throw line. So we just didn't want to put on their shooters or Tony Parker,” he admitted. “And we're happy that he missed one down the stretch. That's just how the ball bounces sometimes in basketball.”
“This is a big win for us. We surprised a lot of teams by getting here. We just had to stay aggressive and play our game. And we just weren’t afraid and that was the difference.”
Blatt was the one who constantly reminded his players to be confident.
“I told them to believe in themselves and that we were going to put an end to this drought (10 years without reaching a EuroBasket semi-final),” he said afterwards.
They will now face the winner of tomorrow’s quarter-final between Lithuania and Croatia.
Russia last reached a EuroBasket semi-final in 1997 which coincidentally was the last time the tournament was held in Spain.
But they were made to work very hard for the win and owed much to the fine and clutch play of Holden in the last 10 minutes.
The point guard scored five of his team’s points in a 7-0 run that saw them turn a 61-57 deficit into a 64-61 lead.
Russia were dealt a big blow when star player Andrei Kirilenko fouled out with 3:25 left, which allowed France to even the game at 64-64.
Another Holden long-range bomb and a Petr Samoylenko lay up though gave the Russians some breathing room at 69-64 with 2:35 left but Diaw made a lay up and Parker hit a clutch three just over a minute later to tie the game at 69-69.
However, Russia were the more accurate team from the foul line in the final minute and it proved to be the deciding factor.
Afterwards, Parker – who earlier in the tournament missed a clutch free-throw to tie the game in France’s group stage game against Slovenia – made no excuses as France failed to reach their second consecutive EuroBasket semi-final .
"There's little to say, we had our chances and we didn't make them,” he said bluntly. “It's frustrating, we will have to look at the video and see where we went wrong. Russia are a good team, they played well and they made the most of the chances."
Claude Bergeaud’s men led for a large part of the game after using a 17-7 run in the second quarter to turn a 27-23 deficit into a 40-34 lead behind a three-point barrage by Tariq Kirksay, Cedric Ferchaud and Florent Pietrus.
Russia though clawed their way back behind Victor Khryapa to trail by just three, 42-39, at half time.
And they kept the game close after the break as both teams combined for 13 turnovers in a very sloppy third quarter.
France lost their composure in the final period long before their free-throw woes came back to haunt them as their accuracy from long range deserted them and they struggled to create any good scoring opportunities as Russia buckled down on defense.
Les Bleus were an abysmal nine of 20 from the free-throw line (45%) while Russia were only marginally better hitting nine of their 17 attempts (53%).
Khryapa had a team-high 16 points for Russia with Holden adding 15 and Morgunov chipping in with 14 off the bench.
Diaw had a game-high 17 points and Parker was France’s only other player to score in double figures with 15 points.
France will now play for the 5th to 8th places.