When Serbia finished fourth in the World Cup group stages, very few gave them a hope of making Sunday’s title game.
But thanks to 24 points from Milos Teodosic, Serbia did what the masses did not expect and beat France 90-85 in Madrid to set up an unlikely finale against USA on Sunday night.
“Teodosic is an unbelievable player,” Serbia coach Sasha Djordevic said. “Right now, he is the MVP of this competition, absolutely, no doubt. He is our leader.”
A three from Thomas Heurtel with 1:09 left, which narrowed Serbia’s lead to 82-79, which ensured a grandstand finish. With 16 seconds remaining, Heurtel made one of his two free throws, making Serbia go to the line. Nikola Kalinic made no mistake as Serbia withstood a three in the final seconds from Nicolas Batum to earn their way to victory.
“We just want to play our game,” said Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic when asked about what his team-mates were saying to each other in those final minutes.
“I think we lost a little bit of our focus, especially on defence and we talked about each other getting back in the game with the defence not with offence.”
Bogdanovic added 13 points for the Serbians.
Batum led France with a game-high 35 points, as they will have to settle for the bronze medal game against Lithuania, a re-match of last year’s Eurobasket Final in Ljubljana.
“We had a bad start, we didn’t start the game the right way,” Batum said. “We were playing a World Cup semi-final so we got to be ready.
“We got to be ready, especially myself if we want to win these kind of games.”
Batum gave the French their first lead of the contest at 10-9 with a three-pointer, but the Serbians, who needed a good start, came storming back. An 11-0 run, six of them coming from Teodosic gave the Serbs a 20-10 lead and despite a strong finish to the opening period by the European champions, Serbia led 21-15.
France never got out of the blocks for the first two minutes of the second quarter though, Batum came out of the game, as he looked in pain, holding his face and it wasn’t until 2:40 gone in the second that they were able to get a basket. A tip-in from Joffery Lauvergne then followed by a bucket from Mickael Gelabale narrowed the double-digit to just 30-19, forcing coach Djordevic to call a timeout.
The Serbs though were playing sublime basketball. Bogdanovic didn’t score until the last minute of the half but the experienced Teodosic was at the heart of the of it all, scoring 15 points after two quarters to give his side a strong 46-32 lead at half-time.
A 15-minute break didn’t faze a red hot Teodosic, who hit his fourth triple to begin the third quarter to give the Serbs a 49-32 lead. Les Bleus slowly chipped away at the Serbians lead and a bucket by Rudy Gobert brought it back to 12 points, Teodosic and Nenad Krstic scored though to give Serbia a bit more breathing space.
A hook shot from Miroslav Raduljica gave Serbia a 61-46 lead after three quarters, as France needed to produce the form they had shown against the hosts in the quarter-finals to get back into this.
And they showed glimpses of what they were capable of in the first possessions of the fourth. A three from Evan Fournier and a dunk in transition from Batum shrunk the lead to 10, forcing Serbia to call an early timeout.
Even with a break in play, the momentum was with the French, Back-to-back three-pointers from Diaw and Batum made it 63-57 and another three from Fournier made coach Djordevic call a timeout with 5:16 remaining with France trimming it to four points at 65-61.
But Serbia had enough will power to get the job done and guarantee themselves a spot on the podium.