|"That, for sure, at that second, we were the happiest people in the world" - Ana Dabovic |
By Mark Woods
The last turnover of EuroBasket Women 2015 arrived with 25 seconds left and with the confetti primed to fall through the air and Serbia's dance of joy already under way.
Mistakes are usually moments of frustration. This was the ultimate act of love. "I was hoping she would do it," Milica Dabovic revealed. "But I couldn't believe she did it for real."
For 20 minutes and a few seconds more of a fitting finale in Budapest, the point guard had been relegated to the role of anxious spectator, the 33-year-old's right elbow smothered in a bandage fastened by pins but her nerves threatening to burst apart.
As so often in her life, her younger sister had her back with limitless support. With only the formalities of a 76-68 victory over France that would deliver the country's first-ever title, Ana Dabovic would let nothing prevent the siblings from completing this journey in unison, arm in arm, side by side.
"Coach wanted to put her in," Ana - named as the tournament's MVP, presented by Tissot - recounted. "But the clock didn't stop. I saw her. I didn't want her to miss out on this chance because she was really the one who was there from the beginning for this national team and who put this group together.
"She's kept us here, to reach where we are now. I was screaming to make a foul. But when we got the ball on offence, I tipped it out. I wanted her to come in and enjoy this on the court because she has given everything."
|Milica Dabovic was kept on the bench for the majority of the second half with an arm injury|
As the buzzer sounded, they embraced tightly and euphorically, the sister who came to play when it mattered most and the sister who couldn't. "We said how proud we were of each other," Milica smiled. Around them, their team-mates let loose and ran wild. A huge contingent of fans, some who had driven overnight from Belgrade and elsewhere to witness this moment, followed their lead.
Yet even amid the chaos, a quiet intimacy continued. "Moments like that, you cannot really express, in words, just feeling for that moment that nothing else exists," Ana confided. "That, for sure, at that second, we were the happiest people in the world."
It was also an outpouring of relief for a side that had its ups and downs over 17 days in Hungary, losing three times, but lifted itself to the apex when the spoils were on the line.
The French, with vast experience and a reputation to retain, kept pushing even when they trailed by seven in the third period, even when shots failed to fall and the overwhelming and relentless pressure kept coming in waves.
Before the game, Marina Maljkovic had stood in the middle of her locker room and told her players to be ready to give everything and then more.
"We are full of desire to win," Serbia's coach said. "But this is not going to be enough. We must use our desire and brain in order to win."
She trusted they would listen. Yet they could so easily have fallen apart when Milica Dabovic's arm was so swollen that it could barely bend.
|Sonja Petrovic was clinical in the final|
Others, Sonja Petrovic especially, stepped up to apply the glue. "They just had more energy than us," Celine Dumerc admitted. "Milica, her energy and her heart as the captain, is something we miss a lot," Maljkovic noted. "But every player can be replaced and take responsibility. That's a team. That's the difference."
Every time the ball flew through the hoop, the loudest roar of approval came from the chair at the end of the bench. When Ana buried a pair of free throws with 67 seconds remaining to end any hope of a French comeback, there was a scream.
Throughout her absence, Milica had never kept quiet. "In time-outs, during the game, we could hear her talking all the time," Petrovic said. "It was the worst feeling ever," Dabovic added. "I never want to be outside the line and have to wait for my girls to fight for me. Because I am a fighter. It's the worst feeling when you can't do anything."
For once, having helped Serbia emerge over the past decade from nowhere in Europe to conquer the continent, she was able to let others carry the load. It was apt that it was Ana, who grew up idolising her sister, who became the icon with a performance to remember.
"I was so proud of her after the semi-final," Milica confirmed. "She was amazing. She showed everything. I always say she is the head of the team and I am the legs and together, we can be amazing."
Now they can plan to go to Rio next summer and fulfil the dream of playing in an Olympic Games that they had shared for so long. One more moment for the family album.
And one further occasion to embrace.