Once again, they were not fancied, but against all odds, Lithuania are going to the big dance.
The Baltic giants are heading for their second straight Eurobasket final, and a date with Spain on Sunday after edging Serbia 67-64 in the second semi-final in Lille on Friday night.
The win also ensures Lithuania’s participation at next year’s Rio Olympics.
“To beat Serbia with 20 turnovers and shooting 2/14 from three, is something unbelievable,” Lithuania head coach Jonas Kazlauskas said.
Renaldas Seibutis and Mindaugas Kuzminskas led Lithuania with 13 points each. Milos Teodosic replied with a game-high 16 for the Serbs but his side will have to fight for bronze against hosts France on Sunday.
“This was one of the most important games of my life,” Kuzminskas said.
“We were up by ten and even when they pulled it back, we showed our true Lithuanian heart and spirit, and especially when people thought that Italy and Serbia would beat us easily so we wanted to show people that we belong here and now we have an Olympic birth because of our heart.”
While Lithuania had heart in abundance, they also needed a bit of luck.
Trailing 66-64 with seven ticks left, Bogdan Bogdanovic, usually cool, calm and collected had an opportunity to win it, but as he rushed down court with Lithuanians all round him, he lost his footing with the basket at his mercy, leaving Mantas Kalnietis with the easy rebound and game-winning free throw.
“It was a bad bit of luck for Bogdan,” Kalnietis said. “But this is basketball and we wanted to win.”
From the outset, Lithuania looked determined, Serbia, somewhat out of sorts. A three from Unics Kazan’s Arturas Milaknis gave the Lithuanians a 14-7 lead, forcing Serbia coach Sasha Djordevic to call a timeout.
But despite the short interval, nothing seemed to be working for the Serbians, as Miroslav Raduljica, normally a useful presence inside, was being outworked by opposite number Jonas Valanciunas, who in the first ten minutes, got three blocks on the new Panathinaikos recruit and did not pick up a single foul, leading Lithuania to a deserved 22-17 cushion after one.
Serbia, though were always going to find a way back into proceeding and duly did so towards the end of the second quarter, as Stefan Markovic, who was earlier the victim of a monster block by Kalnietis, responded with a triple and then on the half-time buzzer, a lay-up by Bogdanovic narrowed Lithuania’s lead to 35-34 at the half.
The FIBA World Cup silver medallists certainly looked reenergised in the latter stages of the second, going forward with promise, whereas Lithuania’s offence was static, leading to the Serbs outscoring their rivals 11-1 in the remaining 3:54 of the second.
It was a burst that continued going into the third, with Bogdanovic scoring five quick-fire points, followed by a pair of foul shots by Raduljica, which gave Serbia control once more.
Kuzminskas then snapped Serbia’s 9-0 run with a tip-dunk off the miss by Jonas Maciulis and Valanciunas connected on a slam of his own to wrestle the lead back into Lithuania’s favour with 2:28 remaining of the third.
And the Baltic side continued their own mini run thanks to the assured play of Kuzminskas, who inspired Lithuania to a 48-43 lead after three. And to start the final period, Two buckets close in by Paulus Jankunas and Kalnietis force coach Djordevic to call an early timeout to try and rejuvenate his troops.
It nearly worked, but it was human error that sealed Lithuania’s place in Sunday’s showpiece.
“We didn’t open the game, fighting,” Serbian coach Djordevic said. “The Lithuanian team just played physically as we know they will. It was their biggest impact and it was their game plan obviously.
“We tried to come back, we come back, we spent a lot of energy and we came back twice. [We had] a couple of unlucky things under our basket, we had good defence and the ball in their hands on one point for them, we needed luck, we had a chance to go for the game and I think my players had a decent game in the sense of big desire but we didn’t play it well.”