Poland recovered from an epic collapse thanks to the heroics of Mateusz Ponitka and AJ Slaughter to stun Luka Doncic and defending champions Slovenia and reach the semi finals in historic fashion.
Slovenia started this game with the bold strategy of opting not to play any D. It made things rather entertaining but was visibly bizarre as Alexander Balcerowski just scored for fun in the first few minutes. Mike Tobey’s cover of a three attempt by Mateusz Ponitka was as rare as finding an albatross in the wild. The defence chant from the Polish fans to my left felt like a reminder to do that thing Slovenia wasn’t doing.
Luka Doncic, which is why you landed on this article to begin with more than likely, was more creator than shooter for Slovenia early. He quickly picked up 3 assists but only had 2 shots in the game’s opening 8 minutes. Luka’s usage in this tournament has been intense but he was taking a back seat in the half court during the first quarter, clearly standing off for several possessions.
Poland only held a single possession lead after a first quarter where it looked like Luka was taking it easy. Not that any of Slovenia’s big three was actually getting a break. Doncic, Goran Dragic, and Vlatko Cancar were all going to be logging a long time on the floor in this one.
Dragic and Cancar finally took seats after a couple of minutes in the second but Lika stayed out there despite looking like he could really do with a rest for his head as much as anything else. The scoring was difficult early in the third but Poland eventually picked up some momentum to roll into a surprising but well-earned 43-29 lead. Still Doncic stayed out there, no break for the youngster but no breaks for his team as Slovenia’s scoreless run continued through the midpoint of the quarter.
Doncic finally sat after a full 15 minutes in his opening stint. In that run he’d scored with poor efficiency, created well but also turned the ball over three times. He was a man whose body seemed to realise with the extended break since Saturday how much of a rest it really needed.
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Finally Goran got a bucket for Slovenia after over 5 minutes without a score of any kind. It didn’t slow the Poles and Doncic came back in to close the quarter, to little effect as Poland pushed into a 21 point lead. This wasn’t so much looking like an upset as an absolute demolition. Ponitka was rampant in every department and looking like he was the man that everyone came to see, not the famed Dallas Mavericks man.
Doncic came out last from the locker room before the second half, with Slovenia staring down a 19 point deficit. He was the first to stop shooting as well. In visible pain, after a couple of bad falls in the first half, he didn’t exactly look ready to lead a comeback of historic proportions. Well, looks aren’t everything.
There was a stutter from Poland to start the third. Not enough to remotely signal a panic from the bench but it was something. When you’re staring down a shock win as 9/1 underdogs going into a game, it’s almost scary to lead by as much as they did. Then the lead got cut to 10 and there was reason to wonder if the collapse could happen, even against such a tired looking Slovenia team.
With almost 26 minutes played in the contest, Slovenia got their first bench points of the night from Edo Muric and then Mike Tobey cut it to just 4 points. Still, Poland coach Igor Milicic looked calm enough on the sideline. Jaka Blazic from deep and it was a 1 point game. Slovenia had reeled in 18 of that 19 point deficit in less than 8 minutes.
With 10 minutes to play it was right in the melting pot. Slovenia had end the third with a pair of desperation turnovers, one each by Dragic and Doncic, but Poland turned them into just a single point. Blazic ensured there’d only be the minimum between them entering the fourth.Goran Dragic gave Slovenia the lead right at the start of the quarter. A quarter and a possession, that’s all it took to erase one of the biggest half-time deficits in the history of EuroBasket and with an exhausted looking group of starters.
Ponitka reached the triple double mark early in the fourth, only the fourth ever recorded in EuroBasket (although that is skewed heavily as FIBA has no data on rebounds, assists, steals and blocks before 1995…also, what?) but for what? Here were Slovenia looking like everything had gone exactly to plan and there had never been anything to worry about.
AJ Slaughter came alive exactly when Poland needed him to, putting them back in front midway through the final quarter and we still had a game on here. Ponitka from deep and he was ready to drag his side over the line too. Doncic missed a pair of free throws and his sloppiness was proving costly in the game’s denouement, having recorded his highest number of turnovers ever (6) in the competition and picking up his fourth foul with just under 4 minutes to play. Then came the missed three and Poland now had the momentum behind them with Slovenia calling out for foul calls that weren’t coming.
Then a foul call came, as 53 seconds after collecting his fourth, Doncic picked up his fifth and was out of the game. Slovenia were 6 points down as he sat with Slaughter and Ponitka rallying the Polska chant as they stopped every attack and went marching up the floor with ease once more.
Ponitka from deep and he turned to the Polish fans in glee. Then he drew a foul right off Goran and the Polish fans forgot about the heart attack their men had given them just a few minutes earlier. Ponitka kept going and carried them to history. For the first time since 1971, Poland would play in the medal rounds of EuroBasket and the last of the big three stars of EuroBasket 2022 had fallen. Instead, Ponitka decided he would be the star.