For so long they have been the nearly men of international basketball. Finally France can say that they are champions.
France ended years of near misses by beating Lithuania in the Eurobasket final 80-66 at the Stozice Arena in Ljubljana, as coach Vincent Collet and his side can finally call themselves Eurobasket gold medal winners for the first time.
“It was not the easiest win,” Collet admitted. “Obviously, we have been better two years ago during the tournament but I think we have been learning from any experience and we have been better during the whole tournament. We improved from the quarter-final onwards. We played good in quarter-finals. We played excellent in second half against Spain and tonight was possibly our best game.”
Tony Parker finished with 12 points and was a deserved Eurobasket MVP; no one could ever deny him of such an honour. A long NBA season, followed by a full seven games in the Finals and then this; he simply would not be repudiated.
“It’s hard to say how I feel,” Parker stated. “It means so much for French basketball, for the country and have so many supporting us and all the French athletes, basketball in France, my family all my friends. I had so much support chasing this title.”
The fact that Parker would play for France in this tournament was staggering enough. Coming off a loss to the Miami Heat in the Finals was tough. Playing another three weeks of high-level basketball would worry any NBA coach.
“I’m a little bit tired. It was a long season and I was tired during the game, I felt it during the quarter-finals and the semi-finals but coach [Vincent] Collet and I had a perfect plan. He told me, ‘tonight just trust your team-mates, they’re going to double team you, they will come hard on the pick and rolls, just trust your team-mates. If you score 10 points, we’ll win the final because your team-mates will show up’.”
And they did.
Nicholas Batum led the winners with 17 points, Boris Diaw had 15.
“This is an awesome feeling, describing it would be impossible,” Diaw said. “We have a great bunch of players who knew what they were capable of and we said all through that our time was here and now. Look at us now.”
Lithuania had a clear goal, to rough up Parker; the opening French possession resulted in a 24 second violation, they limited the San Antonio Spurs guard’s options. France were static, but it was only a minor blip.
Les Bleus had other resources, as Batum came into the fray with seven points in the opening ten minutes, using his excellent off-ball movement to free himself for easy looks.
Linas Kleiza was playing like a man possessed, playing all ten minutes and hitting all four of his attempts from the field for 11 points as Lithuania led 22-19 after one.
The question was could Lithuania, taking Kleiza out of the equation manage when Kleiza was on the bench. There was no way he could last 40 minutes.
The answer was no.
The Fenerbahce man went to the bench early in the second and France took advantage. Mantas Kalnietis, who had 19 points offered resistance, but the French were feeling it. Everything dropped, everything worked. It was one-way traffic. Even when Lithuania called a timeout, the Eurobasket dance group, the “Rytas Dancers”, a Lithuanian troupe’s music failed, as they were just about to perform.
The torment for the Baltic nation took another hit on the half-time buzzer, as Antoine Diot’s near half-court three went straight in. The referees reviewed it, and after a minute of discussion confirmed that the basket had counted. France up 50-34 and cruising.
Back-to-back buckets from Diaw, who hit 11 of his 15 points in the third period, stretched the lead to 64-42. Lithuania were battling away, desperately chipping at France’s hefty margin.
It didn’t work though. France were in mood to give up any lead. A team that came back from 14 points down to beat Spain were not giving this up.
You could have been forgiven if you forgot that Parker was even on the floor. He scored in the early stages of the fourth to give France a 70-52 lead. He had just six points by that point.
The French were already celebrating by that moment. The famous Lithuanian drums were getting quieter. For all the colour and noise, they knew the outcome.
“Today we had a chance to win but they were better than us we didn’t do nothing to give oursleves a chance to win,” Robertas Javtokas said. “I don’t know what more to say. We let them feel the game and we lost the game.”
Kleiza led the runners-up with a game-high 20 points.
“We had a good opening but lost our way a bit. We wanted this so bad, but our fans showed up for us, gave us great support. Just sorry we couldn’t bring them the medal,” Kleiza said.
SPAIN GRAB BRONZE
Spain eased their way to third place of Eurobasket 2013 after beating Croatia 92-66.
Sergio Llull led the Spaniards with 21 points. Bojan Bogdanovic led Croatia with 22.
EuroBasket All Tournament team
Goran Dragic (Slovenia), Tony Parker (France), Bojan Bogdanovic (Croatia), Linas Kleiza (Lithuania) and Marc Gasol (Spain).