Its injury-depleted squad did struggle, but the character of Russia’s players ultimately prevailed as 2007 European champs clinched a EuroBasket 2015 berth in Sunday’s cliffhanger against Italy in Cagliari.
“We needed to win with the players we had. Everybody understood we could only count on ourselves. The guys were ready to do that, we simply went to work,” Anton Ponkrashov, Russia’s captain and hero in Sunday’s 72-68 win told Sport Express daily in an interview published Tuesday. “Our country is gigantic and there are many good basketball players that could fill not just one, but two teams. Italy, for instance, lacked [Marco] Belinelli – sure, it’s a significant loss, but the Italian squad wasn’t weaker altogether.”
Last year, Russia’s star forwards Andrei Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa retired from the national team and going into EuroBasket 2015 qualifiers new head coach Yevgeny Pashutin had to deal with the absence of Alexander Kaun, Sergei Monya, Vitaly Fridzon, Alexei Shved, Andrei Vorontsevich and Sergei Bykov, all missing due to injuries or personal reasons.
Ponkrashov led Russia’s scorers with 22 points and handed out a game-high eight assists as Russia grabbed the win in a do-or-die situation, turning the game around in the last quarter after trailing by six points midway through that period. A defeat would have sealed Russia’s fate as a single win in four games wouldn’t have secured a finish among the six best second-place teams in seven groups. Missing on EuroBasket 2015 would have also automatically thrown Russia out of contention for a spot in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
On Aug. 10, Russia opened its qualifying campaign with an unexpected loss to Switzerland in Fribourg and then suffered another defeat at home against Italy. Consecutive losses left Pashutin’s team with no choice but to win both reverse ties. Having trounced the Swiss by a 45-point margin in Moscow, Russia travelled to Sardinia facing elimination in case of a third loss. The neck-and-neck race at Cagliari’s Rockefeller Arena dragged on into the fourth quarter with the teams tied at 66 with 2:24 to play. Russia kept its cool and played tough defense in the remainder, allowing the opponents only two more points from the free throw line while scoring six.
“On our team we’re all grown men, everybody understood what we had to do. Either we go to EuroBasket or… We just had nowhere to retreat to. And we endured despite some refereeing decisions that were incomprehensible at times. We showed that true men play for Russia and that we’d been written off early,” concluded Ponkrashov.