By Cindy Garcia-Bennett, PA Sport
Fran Vazquez has faced intense moments in his basketball career, but nothing could have prepared for the pressure of Spain's EuroBasket quarter-final against Croatia on Friday.
Vazquez, who had only made cameo appearances in Spain's three group games, came off the bench for Mario Pesquera to put forth an unforgettable performance and guide his country into the semi-finals.
The 2.09m center, who was drafted by the Orlando Magic 11th overall in this summer's NBA Draft but elected to remain in Spain and sign for ACB side Girona, scored 26 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked three shots as his team won 101-85 in overtime.
||I believe that against Croatia, I was very complete in my performance
"This has been the most intense game in my whole career," Vazquez said to PA Sport.
"I am delighted with the result, for my team and for what it represents for my country.
"I think I have had a good game, probably the most complete game in my career."
Vazquez's rise to prominence has been rapid.
After the 2003-04 season with Gran Canaria, he joined forces with Jorge Garbajosa at Unicaja Malaga and helped them win the Copa del Rey.
His performances in the ACB, and the Euroleague, caught the eye of scouts from other European clubs and NBA teams.
Orlando used their lottery pick on Vazquez, and then he stunned the team in the Magic Kingdom by opting to play for Girona, whose recent investment by Spanish real estate company Akasvayu have made them one of the biggest-spending clubs in Europe over the summer.
Raul Lopez has returned from the NBA to play for Girona, and Dainius Salenga, the Lithuanian international, has also joined the Akasvayu revolution.
This EuroBasket is the first official appearance for Vazquez with the senior side.
"It's difficult to describe what it feels like," he said. "It's something that I never imagined, to play in a European Championship and in front of so many people, it's a fantastic feeling but one that also requires responsibility."
Spain are playing without Pau Gasol this summer and it was feared that his absence would create a void underneath the basket that would not be filled.
Inaki De Miguel played the majority of minutes off the bench for Spain against Serbia & Montenegro, Latvia and Israel, but Pesquera must have sensed that only Vazquez's incredible talent and athleticism would give his team a chance against one of the in-form teams of the tournament.
Vazquez looked like he was made of elastic on one play when he hung in the air and dunked over the Croatians.
"I went on the court wanting to own it," Vazquez said. "Of course, I want to play more minutes but all I can do is give my best and earn my place in the team.
"I practice hard in order to be ready for when the coach needs me and I believe that against Croatia, I was very complete in my performance."
The 22-year-old showed he truly is a remarkable talent by playing at a high level in so many different ways.
He battled for rebounds, made foul shots, dunked and also blocked shots.His offensive rebound off a missed free throw by Juan Carlos Navarro and subsequent put-back with three seconds remaining tied the game and sent it to overtime.
"I felt an overwhelming joy because I had played well," he said. "Two things entered my mind at that crucial moment. One was flexibility, and the other was rage."
Vazquez will have a prominent role against Germany, who upset Slovenia to reach the last four and like Spain, qualify for the FIBA World Championship 2006 in Japan.
"We have to take it a step at a time," he said. "It's going to be a difficult game, just as it was against Croatia. But we are going to have to stop Dirk Nowitzki, stop him in any way we can because if he starts scoring points, we're in trouble."
Nowitzki is second in the EuroBasket in scoring and rebounds with averages of 26.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game.
He is maybe the most versatile player in the world, evident by his shot-blocking against the Slovenians, and the four-point play after he got fouled whiled launching a shot from the arc.
Spain will be looking to have a better start than they did against Croatia.
"We came out lacking concentration," Vazquez said. "In the second half, however, we raised our game and we played beautiful basketball. Let's hope we can do the same thing against Germany."
As for the qualification for next year's big even in Japan, Vazquez said: "It's a great success for us, and I really hope that I can be there with Spain because I am desperate to play in a World Championship."