by Dan Casey
|Prokop Slanina stepped up when it matters most and chipped in with 20 points and 8 rebounds|
Prokop Slanina's free throws capped a fantastic fourth-quarter comeback and pushed the Czech Republic past Latvia and into the semi-finals.
"It's unbelievable!" said coach Petr Treml after the game.
"We knew today would be really tough. It was the first time in the tournament we play as favourites, and the first time for most of these guys playing in the arena. And I must give credit to Latvia, they played excellently. They were fast and smart, they played intelligent basketball.
"I must also give huge thanks to our crowd - they were unbelievable again and they continue to play as our sixth man," said coach Treml of the 2,200 spectators in attendance at the CEZ Arena in Pardubice.
The Czech Republic trailed throughout the contest, but Jiri Soula's three-point attempt was whistled as a foul, and the shot dropped in after the whistle to send the crowd wild and tie the game at 65-65 with 1:32 remaining.
Soula made the free-throw, and after misses from both sides, Latvian big man Rolands Smits made one of two free-throws to tie the game again with 0:53 remaining. The Czech team then missed two shots, but Martin Peterka grabbed the first rebound and Prokop Slanina was fouled as he grabbed the second rebound. Slanina made both from the line to put the Czech team ahead 68-66 with 0:07 left, and a shot from Smits missed at the end to spark joyous celebrations from the Czech team on the court.
Slanina led the Czech team with 20 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. Soula scored 15 points and Radovan Kouril added 12 points, 4 assists and 3 steals. Peterka had a bad shooting night but grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds and dished 6 assists. Latvia were led by 15 points and 9 rebounds by Armands Ginters, and Smits had a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds.
Latvia scored the first six points of the contest, but the Czech team came straight back with an 8-0 run capped by Jiri Dedek's reverse lay-up. Soula hit a three-pointer but Davis Geks twice responded for Latvia, and when Smits hit a jumper from the top of the key and then rolled to the hoop for a dunk, Latvia took a 22-17 lead.
The Czech team started the second quarter positively, Kouril twice providing great passes for first Matej Rubes and then David Subert to score. Reserve guard David Zumer showed his passing skills also, dishing to Slanina in a move which left both players on the ground and tied the score at 33-33. But Nils Gertsons with a tough move and Ivan Zvigurs with a good drive scored to put Latvia ahead 37-35 at the half.
Geks hit a jump-shot to beat the shot-clock buzzer early in the second half, and Latvia had a 45-39 lead. Later in the third period, Kouril got inside after a stylish crossover and converted the lay-up with a foul. Latvia's lead was just one point at 53-52, but a 6-0 run finished the quarter with a series of defensive stops and slick inside passing, capped by a Gertsons lay-up with 0:31 remaining in the third period.
Taking a 59-52 lead into the final period, the Latvian team was then held scoreless for the first 3:13 of the final period. The Czech defense swtiched to a zone, and Slanina's presence in the centre was felt with two blocks. As the tension mounted, Kristaps Gluditis found room to roll inside and put Latvia 65-62 ahead to set up the dramatic ending.