The boys with the banner may have been a touch over-confident but Ukraine knew they were entering the lion’s den on Sunday as once more Bilbao became Helsinki South. A third quarter barrage by Finland put Mike Fratello’s charges in a deep hole. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk led a spirited comeback but the Finns stood tall and hung on through the fourth to take their first win of the World Cup. Emmet Ryan was on the scene.
The tone was set early. This place was loud and it was pro Finland. Shawn Huff three. Place erupts. Ukraine stopped on next possession. Place gets louder. Another score for the Finns. The seats rattle. It took a Pooh Jeter score to end a solid minute of Finnish fury in the stands. Far more importantly, Huff made a second three, and then a third, to force Mike Fratello to call a timeout. If the Finns were going to pull the upset here they needed threes and steals from the off. Whereas on Saturday he was stoic until the final frame, the Ukraine coach was already geeing up his players early in this one. The atmosphere was hostile, Jeter stared down Sasu Salin with with a wall of Susijengi behind him. Jeter cuts, drives, bucket and the foul. Sergii Glady and Oleksandr Lypovyy took the hint and made threes to give Ukraine’s offence the lift it needed. Jeter then found Gladyr outside for another three but he went down hard without contact. At the end of the first Ukraine had survived the early surge to take a 22-20 lead.
After the breakneck pace of the first quarter, both teams eased up in the second frame. A fourth three for Huff was the only score in the first three minutes of play. Petteri Koponen ended the lull with another three for Finland but Ukraine’s offence, which had stalled considerably when Jeter sat, still couldn’t get going. Another bucket from Huff force Fratello to call in his troops again. Finland were opening up leads that were manageable but it was the ease with which they did so that was a concern. Offensively the Finns looked far more fluid despite leaning heavily on Huff. Jeter stared down Salin again, this time the bump and dish to Maksym Pustozvonov. It took nearly 5 minutes but Ukraine finally had their offence rolling again. From there, Pustosozvonov found room in both corners to operate. In the space of 3 minutes he scored 10 points to retore Ukraine’s lead. Jeter, ever the creator, now had room to mix things up a touch more, cutting inside twice as Finland were forced to respect Ukraine’s outside threat more. Finland’s offence wasn’t going away however and a Petteri Koponen jumper on the buzzer meant Finland only trailed Ukraine 37-35.
Once more it was the Finns who started stronger as the third quarter began, quickly establishing a 6 point lead on the back of some second chance opportunities. Once more Fratello needed to call in his troops as the crowd fired up. This time there was no quick reply from Jeter, instead Salin extended the Finnish lead, first with a jumper and then with a drive through the lane. The Finns, now up by double digits, sensed the opportunity to stamp on the neck of Ukraine. Huff made his fifth three of the day and the lead was 13 before Fratello called timeout once more. The Finns kept coming, next up was Lee then a Koponen three off a turnover. Fratello brought on wunderkind and soon to be Kansas Jayhawk Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. The teenager, the youngest player at this competition, looked eager and draw two fouls to bring Ukraine back within 14. A three from Jeter cut the gap to 9 and after an inept 8 minutes, Ukraine were back in a manageable situation. A Mykhailiuk dunk cut the gap further as the Finns held a 57-52 lead with 10 minutes to go.
As with every other quarter it was the Finns who started stronger as Koivisto stretched the lead from deep. The three ball had been Finland’s weapon all day as they flung bombs with confidence. The gulf was opened once more, 67-54 and 6.37 on the clock. Ukraine needed a spark or even consecutive stops and with 5 minutes to play this one was all but in the books. Jeter gave the Finns some cause for concern by bringing up his personal tally to 24 and then feeding Olexander Mishula for a three to cut the gap to just 4 but Ukraine had left it too late to try and save this one.
The Finns, perhaps not as dominant as their fans with the banner predicted, had taken their vital first win of the competition. Bouncing back from Saturday night’s defeat to the USA was huge. Now they take on Dominican Republic in a game where they know victory will all but assure them of a place in the knockout stages. For Ukraine, it’s no disaster but they will need to recover mentally before a big clash with Turkey on Tuesday.