By Jeff Taylor
Marko Tomas buried a three-pointer with 3.1 seconds remaining as Croatia stunned Spain 85-84 to finish top of Group B in Seville.
The win, achieved in Seville’s San Pablo Pavilion, gained partial revenge for the Croatians who were knocked out of EuroBasket 2005 by Spain in the quarter-finals.
The result also put Portugal into the next round, while eliminating Latvia – the team that beat Croatia in the opening game, 85-77.
Portugal upset Latvia on Wednesday.
“I’m really happy that we qualified for the next round with four points, that’s a big advantage for us,” said Croatia coach Jasmin Repesa.
“But, at the same time, we have to stay quiet and go game by game because we’ve seen many surprises already in this championship. I believed after the first big loss to Latvia, that we would get to Madrid. But I was worried how we played then.”
In a EuroBasket which has had several incredible finishes, this one ranks near the top.
Croatia had trailed 50-40 at half time but returned to the court after the break and tightened up their defense.
Trailing 58-50, they went on a 10-2 run to tie the contest at 60 a piece.
Davor Kus, who hit a three-pointer in that spurt, said: “We played a very poor first half when they had 50 points, but we were only down by 10.
“We said we had to improve on defense and when we did that, we were much more aggressive.”
Once they were back on level terms, the Croatians looked a far more confident side.
Leading 71-70, Marko Banic struck with a jumper in the lane and, after Berni Rodriguez missed from three-point range, Banic struck again with a long-range bomb.
Pau Gasol, who had a game-high 26 points to lead Spain, missed and Croatia darted to the other end where Kus made a lay-up.
|Gasol's game-high 26 points weren't enough to secure top honours for Spain in the group|
Suddenly, Spain looked as if they were wobbling.
However, the world champions got a spark from Gasol who dunked off a Felipe Reyes miss to ignite an 11-0 run.
Croatia appeared to have blown their chance, but Kus said: “Even in those moments, we believed in ourselves.”
Time became the enemy though because when Gasol split a pair of free-throws with 45 seconds to go, the host nation had an 84-79 lead.
Kus replied for Croatia with a three-pointer to close the gap to just two with 33 seconds remaining.
Spain used all of the time on their next possession but did not get a good shot with Fernandez attempting a fade-way three-pointer while being closely guarded.
He missed everything, and though Carlos Jimenez was there for the offensive rebound, the 24-second shot-clock expired, turning the ball over to Croatia.
Croatia coach Jasmin Repesa called a timeout to discuss the final 10 seconds.
When play resumed, his team inbounded and pushed the ball up the floor leading to Tomas ending up with it in his hands several feet behind the arc.
The Real Madrid star, who had made two earlier three-pointers, was on target to silence the crowd and leave his team in control.
Spain didn’t panic and called timeout to set up their last play. Fernandez had the ball behind the three-point arc but was closely guarded.
He drove into the lane and attacked the basket, but a wall of defenders met him and denied him the game-winning shot.
Spain complained he had been fouled, but the referees blew their whistles as the buzzer sounded and Croatia’s players celebrated.
“We were thinking Rudy (Fernandez) or (Pau) Gasol would get the ally-oop pass,” Kus said. “In the Euroleague this year, Rudy won a game with an ally-oop.”
When asked if he thought there was contact on the last play, Spain coach Pepu Hernandez said in English: “No doubt about it.”
But he then added with a shrug of the shoulders, “It was a penny”, meaning he thought the call could have gone either way.
“Game by game, we played better,” Repesa observed afterwards. “In the second half, that’s how we want to play.
“In the first half, I was upset by our defense. The guys played very well in the second half, and in my opinion, we deserved this win.”
And what’s worth noting is that Croatia have won without some of the veterans who didn’t make themselves available this year.
Nikola Vujcic, Dalibor Bagaric, Gordan Giricek and Andrija Zizic all declined.
“Now our first opponents will be Israel,” Repesa said. “And that was big.”
As for Spain?
“Losing was a possibility because we are not invincible,” admitted Rodriguez. “Now, we have to work at the small details to improve. In the next round, we expect to get the most number of victories.”