|Dario Saric made a strong statement in the race for MVP and carried his team into the Semi-Finals|
The first Semi-Finalist is Croatia that beat Russia 81-65 in the opening Quarter-Finals date of the U16 European Championship at Sports Hall Topolica in Bar, Montenegro on Friday afternoon.
A huge second half by Croatia changed the story of the game, after watching Russia take a four point advantage at the half time break.
Croatia will face the winner between Spain and France in another Quarter-Final that will be played on the same court later on today.
"Dario Saric is the best player here for me and he's playing all five positions," said the winning coach Drazen Brajkovic.
"He did an excellent today in the second half, and together with the rest of the team we made it.
"My philosophy as a coach is defensive, and I think that's where we won the game today in the second half."
Saric was the difference maker once again, in someway of an understatement, and wrote his tournament high and the best scoring performance in a single game with 34 points.
The vast majority of the points - 25 of them, he scored without missing a single shot in the second half as his team took over.
The Croats also protected the ball very well and committed only three turnovers in the entire second half, to march into the Semi-Finals and stand just one win from their first U16 medal in over a decade.
"We played very good for most of the game, and it's very difficult to talk about such a game when you had a good chance to win, but you don't make it," commented Oleg Meleschenk of the Russian bench.
"What was missing for us was more concentration I believe.
"In the second half Saric played great and he got help from two other players and they started to hit their shots, while we missed some attempts and our confidence went down."
Martin Junakovic scored 18 points and added three steals for Croatia while Filip Bundovic added 14 with three blocks.
Russia saw Vasily Martynov finish with 14 but only three in the second half, Oleg Alferov scored 13, Pavel Sizov and Mikhail Kulagin scored 11 each and Stanislav Ilnitskiy had six points, 10 rebounds and very good defensive job on Saric in the first half.
The winners used a 13-0 run midway in the third quarter to delete a nine point gap, take the lead in their hands and never look back, before extending the gap in the closing minutes.
Croatia started the game with fire from the arc and after three hits in a row took a 2-11 lead in less than four minutes, but after a timeout Russia was ready to strike back.
Kulagin scored back to back three pointers in a 10-0 Russian run, to take their first lead and the Russian guard added another bucket to reach eight points already in the first quarter and give his team a 16-13 lead.
The Croats had one more second on the clock with the ball under the basket, and Karlo Lebo executed a beautiful follow-up shot to minimize the gap to one at the end of the first quarter.
After scoring the first five points of the game Saric was limited, especially when Ilinitskiy was his defender, and added his next basket only early in the second quarter to start a mini 0-6 run and tie the score at 21-21.
Martin Junakovic scored from the arc to put Croatia back on top but soon the Russians were about to take over the game.
Ilnitskiy with two baskets in a row, and a hot hand by Martynov who scored five in a row to reach 11 before the break made it 34-28 inside the last two minutes.
Filip Bundovic fixed a Saric miss to set the half time score on 36-32 and allow his team a smaller gap to handle in the second half.
Russia remained calm after the break and a big catch-and-shoot by Sizov set the gap on 38-47 after 15 minutes and made it look like the Russians were in control, but then exactly Croatia started to comment.
Karlo Lebo and Mislav Brzoja scored from the perimeter, Saric added a pair from the line and another three pointer to give the lead back to his team, and right away dished a big assist to a Bundovic three pointer to cap the 13-0 run.
Kulgain answered with a three pointer but Bundovic and Saric once again hit shots from long distance and opened a 60-50 gap with a bit over than eight minutes to play.
Alferov and Sizov continued the bombing from the three point line and the teams entered the last five minutes with just four points apart, 64-60 but Saric with points off the glass and capped a 12-2 run to decide the game and bring his team inside the last four finalists.