Before Eurobasket’s opening tip-off in Montepellier, Berlin, Zagreb and Riga, many thought that France and Serbia would be the last two teams left standing on September 20 in Lille.
They were nearly correct.
Only problem is, those two nations, both of whom have qualified for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament for the Rio Games will be competing for the bronze.
But for both Eurobasket finalists, Lithuania and Spain, they both feel that they have exceeded expectations ahead of Sunday’s finale in the stunning surroundings of the Stade Pierre Mouroy. Especially for Spain, who are just as surprised to be here as anyone.
“No question,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said when asked by TalkBasket if Spain had exceeded their pre-tournament expectations.
“Everybody knows that we [have] overachieved but at the same time we will keep overachieving, I mean we’re in a final and we want to finish the job.”
A job that Scariolo’s predecessor Jose Antonio Orenga failed to do in the two years that he was the helm of the national side.
Sure, Orenga led Spain to bronze at Eurobasket 2013 but with a team that was unquestionably deeper than the 2015 version at last year’s FIBA World Cup, a tournament that they hosted, and were widely anticipated to meet the USA in the final, la Roja could only reach the quarter-finals, and a successor was needed to take the one time kings of Europe back to their throne.
And Scariolo, who stepped down after the London Olympics in 2012 after winning the silver medal, as well as Eurobasket gold in 2009 and 2011 was the people’s choice to make a grand return.
As a result, his methods and influence has guided Spain back to the brink of Eurobasket glory, as well as a spot at next summer’s Olympics in sunny Rio. And he did it without the majority of his NBA stars, which was something Orenga had at his disposal, last year.
But the stylish Italian remains humble, something his parents are to thank for.
“It’s impossible for me to judge my performances,” he says. “I believe that I give my best, that’s something that I can feel because it’s something which my parents taught me since I was a kid.
“I don’t take any credit for giving my best, I give credit to my parents because they taught me that.”
While Scariolo doesn’t judge his performances, the Lithuanians are much different, producing lion heart-like showings, and thus have been rewarded by advancing to their second straight Eurobasket final.
Only this time, they don’t want history repeating itself in Lille.
“The 2013 final hurt us,” Lithuania’s Mantas Kalnietis, averaging 10.3 points and eight assists a game said.
“We were flat in the game and France were better than us on the day. We don’t want the same thing happening again here. We can learn from our mistakes that we made in Slovenia and play with the heart and determination that got us in the first place.”
“We’re happy to be in the final,” Mindaugas Kuzminskas added. “Spain will be a tough team to crack but we believe in ourselves to get the job done.”
Lithuania, who survived and won tough knockout games against Italy and favourites Serbia has made it this far, why not go one better than Ljubljana, two years previous?
Photo: Mansoor Ahmed / MAP.