By Simon Wilkinson
Whoever said that size mattered in basketball did not see France stun Serbia & Montenegro 74-71 on Tuesday night in Belgrade.
With no player over 202 cm on the court in the final 2 minutes, the visitors were able to out-hustle the hosts, grabbing key rebounds at both ends of the floor.
Serbia & Montenegro had several chances to tie the game in the closing seconds, but Marco Jaric and Zeljko Rebraca each missed pairs of free-throws - some intentionally, some not.
But les Bleus could have put the game out of reach had they converted some of their free throws.
Boris Diaw continued his struggles at the line by missing two of his own which could have given his side a four-point lead at 75-71.
French captain Antoine Rigaudeau then missed the first of two before converting the second for a 74-71 advantage and final score.
After the game, French coach Claude Bergeau talked about his team's risky approach to tonight's game.
|Tony Parker found something approaching his top form against Serbia & Montenegro|
"We knew it would be a very tough game and we thought the only way we could stay close in the game was to take risks defensively," he said, making reference to his line-up late in the game.
"This was a different game for our team compared to the three previous ones. Tonight we were afraid and so we realised we needed to playu together at both ends of the floor and exert more patience.
"We came in with the objective of qualifying for the World Championships, but we never thought we'd beat a team as good as Serbia & Montenegro."
And the win was hard earned.
France couldn't stop the host nation early on, especially the backcourt of Igor Rakocevic and Marco Jaric which combined for 16 points as the home side took a 23-18 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Things went from bad to worse at the start of the second period for the visitors as they turned the ball over three times in a row and felt the strength and depth of Serbia & Montenegro's bench as captain Dejan Bodiroga and center Nenad Krstic gave a boost offensively as soon as they entered the game to create the first double digit lead, 29-18.
But France responded with contributions from its own bench. Center Frederic Weiss had two easy baskets inside before Tony Parker - who was omitted from the starting five - had a personal 6-1 run to close the gap to 39-33.
The two sides traded baskets and free-throws for the rest of the quarter with France getting within four, 39-34 before Krstic and Radmanovic scored on a layup and a three pointer respectively to give Serbia & Montenegro a nine-point lead at half-time.
The second half began with two scoring runs - one by each team.
Rigaudeau had five points in a 9-0 run that tied the game at 44 all before Jaric and Vladimir Radmanovic combined for a 7-0 run that gave Serbia & Montenegro a 51-44 lead.
Radmanovic followed with two three-pointers, but Boris Diaw and Parker made tough lay-ups to bring back to within three, 57-54 at the end of the third quarter.
But France had to fight with Rigaudeau sitting on the bench with four fouls.
Nonetheless, the visitors took their first lead since the start of the game on a layup by Parker and the two sides traded baskets to keep the lead within three. Serbia & Montenegro had their last lead at 66-65 after Milan Gurovic converted two free-throws. Les Bleus eventually went up by four, 70-66 on another move inside by Parker.
Rakocevic got the homeside within two the next trip down the floor, before Florent Pietrus made a tough tip-in off a Parker miss to make it a four point lead for the visitors again.
France played the closing minutes of the game with a small lineup because big men Weiss and Cyril Julian each had four fouls.
The move paid off as they were faster to loose balls, and seemed to jump higher than Serbia & Montenegro's tallest players.
After the game, Serbia & Montenegro head coach Zeljko Obradovic talked openly about his team's problem of coming together and developing team chemistry.
"We had a long talk in the locker room and I tried to tell my players that we lacked good relationships during our preparations and that they needed to fix them to be good human beings," he said.
"I still think we are the best team here but the relationship problems that have gone on over the past two months have never been fixed.
"I told my players to look at themselves in the mirror and I will do so myself. I made a mistake in not trying to fix these problems earlier."
Rigaudeau led a balanced offense with 14 points and Parker broke from his poor form to chip in with 13 points and 3 assists, while Michael Gelabale finished with 12 and Diaw with 10.
Jaric and Radmanovic each had 14 for Serbia & Montenegro, but Jaric missed 5 of 8 free-throws. Krstic and Rakocevic each finished with 11.
France now looks ahead to its quarter-finals game against Lithuania and Bergeaud already knows what it will take to win.
"We must have the same desire and ambition to win as we did tonight. It's our objective to find it before Thursday night."