Finland set all kinds of first half records against Spain but if you’re going to beat Sergio Scariolo, you need to outsmart him for the full 40. Emmet Ryan watched another brilliant sideline performance from the Spain coach as his side reached the semi-finals for the 11th straight time
For Finland it was the biggest day in their basketball history. A chance to make their first every semi-final in EuroBasket, or any major tournament for that matter. Thousands of Finns, it looked like at least 4,000, had made the trip to Berlin dreaming of a better tomorrow.
For Spain it was Tuesday.
I wrote almost the same intro for the clash of Slovenia and Spain in this tournament five years ago and, although it was very different Spanish side to that one, the sense of occasion felt the same. Sergio Scariolo goes to quarter finals expecting to win, no matter the roster he has or the opponent before him. It’s just what he does.
The wolf howls of the Susijengi rang out as Willy Hernangomez stepped to the line for Spain’s first free throw. It a shrill and low noise but, courtside, in a less than half full arena, it was unmistakable. It took a little long than expected at the start but Lauri Markkanen got off the mark after about 3 minutes. The task was simple, Markkanen needed a career night if Finland was going to pull off the upset. His first dime, to Alexander Madsen, followed on the next possession. A fast break started by the Utah Jazz man led to Sasu Salin scoring from the elbow and Finland had its first lead of the night.
Every possession, even midway through the first half, sounded like life and death for the Susijengi in the stands. As they shouted Suomi, they might as well have been in the final seconds waiting for a buzzer beating winner already. It wasn’t just Markkanen. As the superstar sat, 18 year old Miro Little started flinging the ball everywhere it could help Finland and proved an impressive athletic spark for the Susijengi early.
Scariolo adjusted, having his side press higher up the court and risk the foul in order to slow down the Finnish fast break. Lassi Tuovi on the other bench stayed calm before breaking the glass to put Markkanen back in after a near 4 minute break. No matter the scoreline, Tuovi had to be happy with how he’d been able to manage his rotations in the first quarter. As it was, the score was pretty good too. A Mikael Jantonen three from inside his own half made it a 30-19 lead after the first.
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Shawn Huff is 38 years old but he looked like a young man as Finland ran into an unbelievable 15 point lead early in the second quarter. Spain had tried to run with the Finns, playing directly into Tuovi’s hands despite Huff and Petteri Koponen being a combined 72 years old. With the Tuovi rotations, they could handle the running game of their younger teammates but Scariolo’s side had too much bulk to win the fight on those terms.
Rudy Fernandez kept on fighting to try and fire up Spain but a tremendous effort to keep a ball inbounds sent him crashing hard into the courtside seats. It’s the type of play that can fire up a team but also a cause of concern as Fernandez had been the emotional heart of this team on the floor during its most difficult moments of the tournament.
Spain went to doubling Markkanen and it proved the most effective means of slowing the Finnish offence. Finally, the game was coming back to the pace that suited Scariolo. Not that it reduced the likelihood of Markkanen scoring or creating much, he just had to use more energy to do so which was as much of a win as Spain could ask for in a rotten first half. They got the breaks they wanted with an effective 5 point play in the final minute as an and-1 bucket from Juancho Hernangomez was followed by a turnover and an Usman Garuba dunk.
Still, against a strategic master, Tuovi had not only held his own but clearly won the tactical battle over the first 20 minutes, with his side leading 52-43.
Scariolo got what he wanted to started the second as a 10-1 run cut the gap to the minimum. Spain utterly dictated play, doubling Markkanen directly with a third body ready to scooch over in support and the rest of the Finnish line-up looked incapable of creating for themselves. This was the fear Finland had. Despite being the first team to ever score 30 points in a first quarter against Spain in EuroBasket, the first team this century to score 50 in a half, and having not lost a game they led at halftime in EuroBasket since 2011, there was always that fear for Finland that Spain would be able to turn things around with little difficult in after the break.
A much needed Markkannen dunk roused the Suomi supporters in the stands but it didn’t deter Spain as Willy Hernangomez just barged through them time and again on the inside. A Joel Parra three put Spain ahead for the first time since early in the game midway through the third and it all seemed desperately familiar. Juancho followed up soon after from deep and these were stressful times for Susijengi. An Usman Garuba block was followed by a three from Rudy and things were getting grim.
As the third quarter wound down, Finland were still in the fight but they were looking increasingly on the wrong side of it. The fourth quarter needed to be the full on wild running of Markkamania in order for them to have any hope. As it was they started the final frame with him sitting. After a little over a minute he came in and nobody expected him to sit again.
Spain were ready. Garuba boxed him into a corner and he had to make a desperation pass to Salin just to avoid an 8 second violation. The turnover came and Markkanen picked up a foul. Still, Scariolo was the opposite of calm as a Mikael Jantunen made it a 4 point game. A Parra miss from inside and Alexander Madsen got to the line to make it a one possession game.
Juancho blocked a Markkanen dunk attempt to tie it hard but clean. Dario Brizuela made Finland’s lack of aggression pay to push it back out toe 5 with 3.26 to play and, even with a manageable deficit, the dream seemed to be dying. A turnover out of their own timeout seemed to kill it off entirely as Rudy Fernandez, who had fought like a warrior all day, made a three to stretch it further.
Lauri Markkanen had a great day on the floor but he needed an all-timer. Spain found a way to stop him and, like they just do, advanced to the semi-finals.