|If Sandra Mandir says Croatia will give their all to finish at fifth place, the only certainty is Montenegro will have to fight till the last second to deny them|
Croatia captain Sandra Mandir is keeping her feet on the ground despite being just a win away from a highly coveted fifth-place finish at the EuroBasket Women in Lodz, Poland.
It's been a long time in coming for Mandir, who was in the Croatia team when they played in the event 12 years ago.
Fifth place would be like winning a medal.
Crucially, Croatia would not have to go through qualifying for the EuroBasket Women 2013 in France.
They would also earn a place in next year´s FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Women.
For a team whose best result in their three previous EuroBasket Women was eighth in 1995 and also 12 years ago, no player is more aware of what is at stake than Mandir.
"We are a small nation," Mandir said to FIBAEurope.com.
"We have not had much success in the women´s game up to now.
"Now we are one win away from reaching a dream that would be to qualify for the pre-Olympic tournament and we will give our all to finish fifth."
Mandir has taken on quite a personality at the EuroBasket Women.
Some observers are comparing her performance to that of Evina Maltsi of Greece, when she led her team to a fifth-place finish two years ago.
Maltsi was named MVP of that tournament.
The 33-year-old Mandir is averaging 15.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and four assists per contest.
She is shooting an impressive 42.5% from behind the arc, 80.6% at the free-throw line.
Nothing has come easy for Stipe Bralic's side.
Without the services of Wisla Can-Pack point guard Andja Jelavic, ruled out through injury prior to the start of the tournament, Croatia were blown away by France 86-40 in their opening Group C game in Katowice but bounced back 24 hours later to beat Greece 65-63.
Mandir made a spinning move in the lane and sank a game-winning lay-up at the buzzer against the Greeks.
Next Croatia fell to Latvia, a loss made even worse when forward Ana Lelas went down with an injury and was sidelined for the rest of the tournament.
|Mandir celebrating with Jelena Ivezic after scoring the winning basket against Greece, a turning point in Croatia's EuroBasket Women 2011 campaign|
Just how important Lelas was for Croatia, proved evident in their 80-61 loss to Montenegro.
"Losing Lelas was a big blow for the team," said Mandir.
"She is one of our best players, one of the leaders of the group so it changed everything for us.
"But we knew we had to re-group, we knew that from then on all of us had to give a little bit more and work as a team to make things happened."
Croatia were on the ropes heading into their Round 2 game against tournament hosts Poland.
Mandir delivered 13 points, nine rebounds and also dished out four assists to guide her team to a 64-56 triumph.
She followed that performance by stealing the limelight against powerhouse Spain with a game-high 23 points on nine-for-13 shooting.
Croatia won that game 75-71 to oust Spain.
"That win against Spain was a big turning point for us," said Mandir.
"It gave us the confidence to know that if we play hard, we are capable of beating anyone."
Mandir did deliver against the Czech Republic with a game-high 27 points but Croatia fell 79-63, but less than 24 hours later they were back on the court needing to beat Latvia to reach Saturday´s all-important fifth-place game.
Croatia won 84-75 with four of their players, including Mandir finishing in double figures.
One of the reserves in the Croatia squad, Lisa Karcic, hails from the United States and qualifies for the national side because her father is Croatian.
She saw great players in the United States and says Mandir belongs in elite company.
"She's awesome," Karcic said.
"I've played with some of the best players in the U.S. and she's one of the best players in Europe.
"I'm so happy to learn from her, have her as my captain.
"She's come full circle since 1999 and to see the joy in her eyes is really special."
Mandir wants it to be even more special.
The victory over Latvia assured her team of at least a sixth-place finish.
"I think this win says a lot about our team," said Mandir.
"As captain I am so proud of my team-mates.
"We all fought. We all contributed to this victory, which is something we knew we had to do if we were to achieve something in this tournament."
As for Saturday´s game, one can only be certain that Mandir and Croatia will be ready to battle.
"We have made it this far," said Mandir.
"It has been a long tournament and we are tired but all will be worth it if we win our final game.
"For us to have a chance to reach the Olympics was unimaginable heading into this tournament.
"But we have proved that we have quality and that we deserve to be here."