No Tony Parker, no problem. France had Thomas Heurtel anyway.
With the momentum going the way of Spain and 13,673 fans inside the Barclaycard Center behind the hosts, Heurtel hit a clutch jumper then followed it with a massive three with 1:05 left to silence the arena and send France to the FIBA World Cup, semi-finals following an impressive 65-52 win on Wednesday night.
The French will now meet Serbia in the last four on Friday night.
“It was great,” France forward Boris Diaw said of Heurtel. “Thomas is still a young player, he’s learning a lot but he’s getting better game after game and from last year to this year, from the beginning of the competition to up to right now.”
Diaw led France with 15 points, but only scored five points in the second half, whereas Heurtel scored nine.
“We know of Thomas to take the big shots,” said France center Rudy Gobert. “He made some very big shots tonight.”
The 22-year-old Gobert was also an outstanding figure for the Les Bleus as he more than held his own against seasoned NBA and international veterans Pau and Marc Gasol. The Utah Jazz youngster hit five points but grabbed 13 rebounds, the latter being a game-high.
“For myself, I always knew I could have everything to win,” Gobert said. “I knew I had to prove that I could do it, and I played hard tonight against Pau, get the rebounds, which I think I did pretty good and we got the win.”
For Spain, the finale that the nation expected against the favoured United States will not be a reality. The USA still have to get by Lithuania in their semi-final on Thursday in Barcelona, but just like at Eurobasket last year, France denied Spain a spot in the showpiece game.
“It’s a painful loss,” Pau Gasol, who finished with joint team-high 10 points for Spain said. “It’s disappointing for this team, we had such high expectations and played an incredible tournament up until this point. It just wasn’t our night.”
The new Chicago Bulls signing was asked about his international future following this defeat. Gasol was unsure but said that there is a great future of Spanish players waiting to come through.
Barcelona guard Juan Carlos Navarro also had 10 points and told Spanish media as well that he too was unsure about his international future.
Despite the anticipation of the hosts, and their passionate fans, it was France who got off to the better start. Three-pointers from Diaw and Joffery Lauvergne gave Les Bleus a 6-0 lead and even when Spain had their chances, another triple from Diaw gave the European champions an 11-2 lead in the early going.
Spain were slow to get out the blocks, but they eventually caught up with their rivals. Marc Gasol connected inside to give the hosts a first lead of the game but after the opening ten minutes, neither side could be separated as the honours were even at 15-15.
Gobert came off the bench to give the French a spark in the second period. He hammered home after a miss from Evan Fournier. Then a few plays later slammed home again following some sublime ball movement around the baseline.
Spain’s fans tried to motivate their heroes but France were a different side to the one that were beaten handsomely by the hosts in Grenada over a week previous.
Rudy Fernandez brought Spain to within four points at one stage but as the buzzer sounded France were good value for their 35-28 lead at the half.
Spain and its fans knew that they were behind and the half-time break was exactly what they needed. Pau scored inside twice and Sergio Llull hit in transition to narrow the gap to a single point at 35-34, forcing coach Vincent Collet to call a timeout.
Five quick points from Navarro and a sole free throw from Llull put Spain up 40-39, as the emotions of both sides were out on display. A mini argument ensued between the two European giants.
A trademark back door, alley-oop lobbed by Sergio Rodriguez to a baseline running Fernandez brought the Barclaycard Center roof down, as the hosts had the upper hand after three quarters, leading 43-42.
France though had more fight left in them. A 9-2 run, highlighted by a three from Diaw gave the European champions a 51-45 advantage, and forcing the hosts to call a timeout.
The pressure was getting to Spain. And even with Real Madrid’s football stars Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas in attendance cheering them on; they couldn’t muster anything special.
This was France’s night. Heurtel made sure of it.
“I think for Spain it wasn’t easy to play against us the second time,” admitted coach Collet. “I know we will have to think about playing Serbia on Friday.
“It’s a very special competition normally you don’t cross the same team but that’s the way the competition is and I think it was a big spread of the first game, which was something important for us because it was more motivation [for us]”