It all started on September 4 as four arenas spaced out around the picturesque setting of Slovenia hosted group games in order to move to the next round in the capital Ljubljana.
89 games later and we have one game left, the 90th and final game, arguably the biggest game in European basketball.
France are back where they were in 2011, hoping to go one better this time. They exacted revenge over previous holders Spain, dumping them out in the last four, leading to Sunday’s finale.
“I’m really happy to be here now,” said France’s Antoine Diot. “We made it, we’ve done our thing from the beginning and it’s a great feeling.”
Diot’s stock has no doubt risen from last night’s game-winning free throws in an intense period of overtime against the former European champions. And having superstar Tony Parker to guide him through this tournament is a blessing. He is learning, and Parker is always around to give the 24-year-old advice.
“He’s incredible,” Diot said of Parker. “He’s our leader and he does everything, he defends, he’s [great] on offence, we speak about everything and it’s great for me as I’m a point guard too and it’s great to play with him.”
For Vincent Collet, he gets a chance to right the wrongs of 2011. His side only lost twice in Lithuania, both of those was to Spain. He’s achieved his first goal: qualification to next year’s FIBA World Cup. Now he gears up for his next challenge of winning Eurobasket. Something his nation has never done.
Could we be forgiven that beating Spain was one of Collet’s sweetest successes?
“I’ve moved on since then,” he said. “Sunday will be a new ball game. We’ve reached the final which was our goal and we now have to prepare for Lithuania like we have prepared for every game in this tournament.”
Lithuania makes a deserved return to a major European final for the first time since they won it in 2003. The last time they tasted defeat was back on the final day of group play in Jesenice against Bosnia & Herzegovina. Since that day, the Lithuanians have earned their spot in the final.
Lithuania’s captain fantastic Mantas Kalnietis has led the Baltic giants to the big dance. A main candidate for the all tournament team, he has averaged a team-high 11 points, plus 4 rebounds in this Eurobasket so far and is showing no signs of slowing down.
“It’s a great feeling to be here,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to be where we are and we are now focused on winning this title for us, our country and our fans.”
The tournament has also seen a “passing of the torch” it seems between veteran Robertas Javtokas and Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas. And while he hasn’t said publically that this would be his last international tournament, Javtokas, 33 has seen his minutes shrink in Slovenia. His influence still as strong as ever, but questions will be asked of his future after this tournament ends.
The Zalgiris big man is keeping tight lipped for now.
The sole survivor from the 2003 squad that won gold, Ksistof Lavrinovic is in the team for Sunday’s game.
The last time the two teams met was on day one of the second round. Lithuania defeated a tired looking France on that night with many asking questions of Les Bleus’ durability.
They’ve answered that question emphatically.
Lithuania knows that they will be in for a tougher match-up on Sunday.
“France will come out and play, it’s the final,” Valanciunas said. “It’ll be a tough game, but we’re happy that we’re here.”
Photo courtesy of FIBA Europe