France ends Spain's reign on top
LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- It had given its best shot, launched its hardest punch and still France would not go away. Spain, fighting to keep hold of its EuroBasket title, was desperate to retain supremacy and throwing everything it could muster.
And yet, here they were again, the two familiar foes, locked together, the semifinal tied 67-67 with 1:10 left in overtime, 10,000 enthralled spectators inside the Stozice Arena not daring to look away lest they miss a twist in the drama.
Amid the chaos, Nicolas Batum still felt the sense of purpose. With his longtime running mate Tony Parker preparing to go to the line, he saw Boris Diaw beckoning him over to the bench, the Spurs forward a helpless bystander after fouling out two minutes earlier.
Diaw, still shouldering responsibilities, had advice to give on a defensive play. Batum responded instead with quiet but fierce assurance.
"This is our time," he said. "We came back from 15 down. We played like children. We didn't play our basketball. But we fought so hard to get back. We couldn't lose this game. I told him: 'I don't care who's on the court. I don't care if they're going to score or not. I'm just going to leave everything on the court.'"
The Portland Trail Blazers swingman strode back into the fray. Parker, virtually indomitable, calmly converted both attempts, and soon after another pair to complete a game-high haul of 32 points.
Spain, as champions should, lashed out again. Sergio Rodriguez flashed upcourt and cut the gap to two. Then Antoine Diot was entrusted with French hopes. He made two more free throws.
France's lead was perilous. In eight straight losses to its neighbors, there have been so many moments like this, where victory beckoned but then slipped incredibly away. Diot, a guard who has overcome multiple injuries, would find redemption, giving Les Bleus a 75-72 lead with 17 seconds left and then forming a brick in the wall as both Marc Gasol and Rodriguez were harassed into misses.
There would be no three-peat. The spell, finally, has been broken and the French now get the chance to do what they could not do two summers ago, and climb an arc of triumph in a EuroBasket final when they meet Lithuania here in Ljubljana on Sunday evening.
If not for their brightest star, they would instead have been playing Croatia for bronze and been doomed to carry the tag of good, but not good enough. Five minutes into the opening quarter, it was Spain 8, Parker 8. A wave of defenders, Rodriguez, Sergio Llull, José Calderon and Ricky Rubio, all lined up to smother the Spurs guard. Without enough help, the French trailed 34-20 at halftime.
They walked into the locker room with few expecting a revival. Spain had no Pau Gasol or Juan Carlos Navarro. This had been France's chance to finally give Parker and a golden generation an elusive gold.
"We got angry," revealed coach Vincent Collet. "We could be beaten by Spain. Spain is a great team. They are excellent. But we wanted a reaction. From being 14 down, halftime gave us this break. And we came back completely different."
They defended, forced turnovers, held Calderon, Rubio and Llull to a combined 3-for-14 shooting. Center Alexis Ajinca, hoping for an NBA call-up before his contract opt-out expires on Sept. 30, stood up to Marc Gasol. A 6-0 burst got France close. And then Parker, with a 3-pointer, put France in front 64-63 with 2:04 left in the fourth.
The French bench erupted. "Allez!" they shouted. This being Spain, nothing was for certain. Gasol hit a jumper, the momentum shifted again. Then Ajinca missed a free throw before sinking the second.
Two possessions later, Parker drove right into traffic, into the hands of Rodriguez. Off went Calderon, into the corner, a shot curling through the air, as the buzzer prepared to sound. Collet, like everyone, just watched and gasped. "You just hope," he thought. "For sure, we could lose it."
But this time, they did not. When overtime ended, the weight of past failure was lifted off French shoulders. Mickael Gelabale offered Diaw a high five. Not enough, he thought. The pair embraced. And then, as a team, they went into a huddle, as Spanish heads bowed around them.
Diaw spoke up. "Yes," he said, "be happy we're going to the final. But now we've got one more important game."
For a few minutes, before thoughts turned to Lithuania, they soaked up the moment and savored the slaying of their nemesis. And why not?
"We finally beat this team," Batum smiled. "This team have given us so many nightmare, breaking our dream every time. We wanted this win, we wanted this game. We finally did it."
Defeating Spain felt good. Yet, as they left the court to the sounds of La Marseillaise, they knew that capturing the gold while their old rivals watch from the sidelines would deliver the sweetest sensation of them all.