by Dan Casey
|MVP Mario Hezonja put on a dunk show with some spectacular break-away slams|
The hosts put up an incredible fight - but Croatia won their second gold-medal in two years with a fantastic performance to take a 67-57 win.
Ivan Jukic couldn't contain his joy: "It's great, it's fantastic - it's the second time for me and it's just an amazing feeling."
Marko Arapovic, the youngest member of the team, said: "It's a weird feeling for me, something I never had before. I can't believe it. I'm so proud of my team-mates, so proud to be involved in this victory."
Head coach Ante Nazor praised his team's composure: "It's the end of two weeks away - the players were all exhausted, and nervous knowing that the gold medal is there. But we worked hard to stay controlled, to remember what we do to win."
5,500 fans packed the CEZ Arena in Pardubice and showed their appreciation for the home team with a standing ovation towards the end of the game. Despite falling short in the final, the Czech team have exceeded pre-tournament expectations and played a tremendous tournament.
Coach Petr Treml said afterwards: "I don't know what happened with our shooting today, but at least those shots were falling yesterday to give us the opportunity to play here today. I'm glad we didn't lose by 20 - we brought the game back to 6 points and we made it tough for them, they were nervous. But you saw, they are a great physical team with great shooting also. I'm proud of our performance though, and you could see in the second half, we were with them, we were on the same level."
Tournament MVP Mario Hezonja led his team with a double-double in the final, 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 steals. Karlo Zganec added a double-double himself (11 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists) and Domagoj Bosnjak had 8 points, 11 rebounds and 4 steals in the success.
Martin Peterka had a double-double in the first half, finishing with 21 points and 14 rebounds. Jiri Soula had 11 points and Radovan Kouril, who was named to the All-Tournament Team alongside Peterka, added 10 points and 4 assists.
With a passionate home crowd cheering for their team, coach Nazor knew the game would be tough: "It's a great experience for the guys to play in front of this crowd. It will be useful for them in the future." Jukic agreed, "It was amazing playing in this atmosphere. But we had no doubt we would win - we have a winning mentality, we showed this all year and we showed it again today. You don't hear the crowd when you are in the game."
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Prokop Slanina opened the scoring and Kouril found Peterka for a lay-up to give the Czech team a 4-0 start, but Paolo Marinelli hit a jump-shot and Tomislav Gabric and Hezonja hit three-pointers as Croatia went 8-6 ahead.
At the end of the period, Bosnjak hit a three-pointer. Matej Svoboda hung in the air to hit a jump-shot, but Marinelli drove inside to give Croatia a 22-19 lead.
Croatia then opened the second period with a 13-2 run as the Czech shooting went ice-cold. Hezonja broke away for a dunk and then hit a three-pointer after a Czech time-out. Hezonja later capped the run with a huge breakaway dunk to leave the Czech team reeling, 35-21 behind.
Tomas Soukal gave the crowd something to cheer about with a nice block followed by a steal which he took up the court, beat the defender with a behind-the-back dribble and laid in. But Croatia's offense couldn't be stopped, as Hezonja showed when despite good coverage from Jiri Dedek, he hit an amazing off-balance shot to beat the buzzer and put Croatia up 41-29 at the half-time break.
Croatia scored the first eight points of the second half as Hezonja's three-pointer pushed the lead to 20. The Czech team tried to push back, and Kouril's three-point play cut the lead to 15, but another Hezonja steal and thunderous dunk took the wind out of the Czech team.
Jukic hit two three-pointers as the lead swelled to 59-42 at the start of the fourth quarter, and it seemed the game was over. But for a few moments in an exciting final period, the Czech Republic looked as though they might pull off an incredible comeback. A 10-2 run capped by Peterka's three-pointer reduced the lead to nine points and forced coach Nazor into a time-out.
And immediately following the time-out, Kouril stole the ball and fired across to Dedek to hit another three-pointer, sending the crowd wild. But the momentum couldn't last, as Bosnjak hit a jump-shot, Gabric connected with a baseline jump-shot, and Bosnjak followed with a great drive to push the lead back up to 12 and extinguish the Czech Republic's hopes.
With 30 seconds remaining in the game and the title secure, the Croatian bench began to celebrate and the crowd rose to acknowledge both their team's fantastic run, and the great performance that had finally beaten them.
Of the time-out at 61-52, coach Nazor explained: "I just said, stay relaxed, controlled, remember your defensive positions and it will be OK."
Coach Nazor thanked his whole team afterwards: "You see Hezonja, but really everyone contributed, everyone is a member of this success. I don't want to single anyone out. Marinelli at point-guard was great, and Karlo (Zganec) has worked very hard, in the paint, on offense, on defense. But really, it's a whole team effort and I thank them all."