With last year’s FIBA World Cup quarter-final defeat on home soil still in his mind, Pau Gasol was not about to let France get the better of Spain again … especially in France.
But Gasol and Spain came up trumps as the Chicago Bulls man scored 40 points and pulled down 11 rebounds to help his side beat the Eurobasket hosts and 2013 champions France 80-75 after a session of overtime in the semi-finals in front of a European indoor record crowd of 26,922 in Lille on Thursday night.
“Last year was very hard for us, for our team to lose in the quarter-finals but it happens and they deserved it, they worked harder for it and we came out flat and we paid the price,” Gasol said.
“So I wanted to win tonight. It was not payback or anything; it was just winning a very difficult game against the team, which I think were the favourites for the tournament in front of their fans. I was obviously extremely motivated tonight, as I have been through the tournament.”
With this win, Spain become the first team to automatically qualify for next year’s Olympic Games in Rio, while France head to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
“[We] fought until the very end,” Gasol continued afterwards. “I’m very proud of my team for continuing to work in the game, through the ups and downs. I think defensively, we did an incredible job.”
And after scoring half of Spain’s points on 57 percent shooting, Gasol certainly led by example.
“He’s possibly the best player in the history of Spain and Spanish basketball and it’s a great feeling to play with him,” said Rudy Fernandez.
With France leading 74-72 on the back of a dunk by Rudy Gobert, the hosts had the momentum and certainly the crowd on their side, but in the following possession, Gobert fouled out after fouling Gasol inside.
Gasol hit both foul shots. France’s best defender was out of the game, and Spain could smell blood.
In the next two Spain possessions, Gasol slammed the ball home emphatically to hand his side a 78-75 lead, which they never let go of.
“[I’m] very proud of my team and how we played,” France’s Boris Diaw said, despite the defeat.
“The plan and what we wanted to do, what we wanted to accomplish was perfect for 37 minutes but for the last three minutes, we didn’t play like we did for the first 37.”
And no doubt, the French started the better of the two teams. Even at the start, the atmosphere was intense with Spain receiving their usual pre-game boos coming out for their pre-game warm-up, and the noise switched from jeers to cheers when Nando De Colo drained a three on the 24-second shot clock buzzer, followed by a steal and emphatic dunk by Nicholas Batum with 4:14 left of the first.
Sergio Rodriguez responded with a triple to end the first ten minutes with Spain narrowing the gap after one to 20-17 but France would maintain their lead for the majority of the second quarter.
A three from Mickael Gelabale gave the hosts a 27-22 cushion as they looked to break away early. But Eurobasket 2011 winners Spain were up for the challenge and a 6-0 run, highlighted by a Rudy Fernandez three, where he got Nando De Colo in the air was enough to give Spain a 32-31 lead.
However, despite gaining the lead, Spain quickly relinquished it again and they failed to score in the last 2:01, allowing the French to lead 33-32 at the half.
And Les Bleus, spurred on by the raucous crowd, gradually built their lead with sharp passing and accurate shooting. A three from Gelabale gave France its first double-digit lead of the game at 54-44 with 1:08 left in the third and Spain struggled to find an answer, offensively. It was one-dimensional, with Gasol seemingly being their only option, they quickly ran out of ideas, which led to France easing into a 56-48 lead heading into the fourth.
But despite utilising different offensive weapons, France allowed Spain back into the game with three separate trips to the foul line, for which Gasol and Rodriguez took full advantage of.
Now only trailing 61-58, Spain suddenly had momentum. Their suffocating defence forced Parker into a heavily contested three on the shot clock buzzer, which was way off the mark and Gasol followed that with a thunderous two-hand dunk and a hook shot to cap a 10-0 run and give Spain a 62-61 lead.
Originally, that was meant to be that but Batum had other ideas as he collected the ball from the inbound, turned and drained a three with 14.1 to go to tie the game at 66-66.
Gasol could have won it in regulation, but Gobert swatted his shot away with three ticks left to force overtime.
Despite going to the extra session, Spain were relentless and aggressive, France, at times were soft. Last year, it was the other way around. This time, it cost France. There was a chance for Batum to tie the game at with 15.5 seconds left, and his side down 78-75, but he fluffed his lines on all three attempts.
And form there, it was fitting that Gasol would ultimately seal it.
Batum and De Colo both led France with 14 points.