Turning Point: Croatia were trailing 28-25 with 8:20 left in the second quarter when their so-called bench players tightened the screws on defence, alternating between man-to-man and full-court press, and went on a 19-1 burst to pull ahead 44-29 on a Bojan Bogdanovic lay-up in transition 2:40 before the half-time buzzer. Croatia stole three balls, got 11 points off Ukrainian turnovers and dished out six assists during that stretch.
Game Hero: Krunoslav Simon provided Croatia with the rare commodity that Ukraine did not have in this quarter-final, namely reliable long-range shooting. The combo guard drilled five of his first seven three-point attempts and finished with a game-high 23 points, adding three assists.
Stats Don't Lie: Ukraine, the most trigger-happy side among all quarter-finalists, with almost 25 three-point attempts-per-game, had a dreadful shooting night on Thursday and went 3-for-22 from downtown. Croatia looked more efficiently for the open man and dished out 22 assists, while Ukraine had only 12.
|Damir Markota and Roko Leni Ukic celebrate a return to the last four at a EuroBasket for the first time in 18 years|
A big second quarter in their Thursday EuroBasket 2013 quarter-final clash with Ukraine propelled Croatia to an 84-72 victory, which marks the nation's first appearance in the top-four of the competition since 1995.
Croatia have now won their eighth consecutive game at this EuroBasket, a winning streak that no other team in the tournament can match, but Ukraine stepped on the court in Ljubljana's Stozice Arena on Thursday determined to make it hard for them and led 12-5 early on.
The Croats balanced proceedings with a 9-0 run but Ukraine put the ball inside, scored 16 points in the paint and probably felt they deserved better after the first ten minutes, when the scores were tied at 22.
"We started soft on defence and we were lucky to score some tough shots," Croatia's Krunoslav Simon said after the game.
It all changed in the second quarter, as Sergii Gladyr gave Ukraine a 28-25 lead from the foul line seeing Croatia decide to change their defensive approach.
Dontaye Draper had three steals and four assists in that stretch and was the instigator of Croatia's shift to top gear and Croatia went to the locker rooms at the break leading 51-35.
"When we started to play defence in the second quarter the result went our way and in the end, we deserved this win," Simon said.
Ukraine had taken only four three-point shots in the first frame and hit two, but went 0-for-10 in the second frame, as they went through a six-minute dry spell under the pressure of the Croatian defence.
"We played the same defence like in all the tournament, we played for each other, we fought for every ball," Croatia's Ante Tomic said afterwards.
"There was pressure on us because of the history of Croatian basketball, we have the same story every year, but for most of these guys this was their first quarter-final."
"We just had to forget about that and come out and play our game."
Simon drilled a triple on the first possession in the second half to give Croatia their biggest lead, 54-35.
Ukraine knew that if they were to react, now was the time to do it.
Kyryl Natyazhko converted an "and-1" play to reduce the gap to 11 points and Viacheslav Kravtsov finished a fast-break with a lay-up to bring Ukraine within nine points, 63-54, with 3:42 left to play in the third.
Croatia's lead was 70-61, at the third buzzer, but when Simon sunk a floating lay-up 5:15 from the end of the fourth to make it 77-65, Ukraine had to call a time-out.
For all their efforts, the great last push they needed was not materialising and when Gladyr fouled out, they lost one more offensive option and only managed to score 11 points in the final ten minutes.
Croatia were not brilliant offensively either, but their experience advantage over the youthful Ukraine allowed them to effectively run down the clock and patiently wait to go to the foul line, maintaining a healthy double-digit cushion until the end.
"I feel great because we had so many fans with us tonight and we waited for this for 18 years," Simon said.
"But [the winning streak] will not mean anything if we lose tomorrow, we have confidence and we must do everything to not stop here."
"We got eight in a row, but we can't stop here, our story does not finish here," said Tomic.