Luka Doncic flirted with a triple double as Slovenia roared to their first every EuroBasket final, securing the nation’s first ever medal in the process. Emmet Ryan looks back on a night where every Slovenian on the floor did what was necessary to not only win but wreck Spain
For Slovenia this was the biggest game in the tiny nation’s basketball history. A shot at a first final in EuroBasket, the final chance for Goran Dragic, and a monster of a test for wunderkind Luka Doncic.
For Spain, it was Thursday.
Since the mid 2000s this nation has dominated European basketball. On the back of that World Cup title in 2006, two Olympic silvers, and a bronze in Rio, Spain took silver at EuroBasket 2007, gold in 2009, 2011, and 2015, and bronze in 2013. These games are the norm for Spain and a new generation was blending in with the old legends to continue their dominance.
There was caution in the paint early. Neither side wanted to test the interior with both happy to see how the other pushed out on D. A half hearted run by Dragic under the basket was like research rather than an effort to probe. Long twos and threes were the standard order and neither side looked to challenge on the other’s boards. Slovenia’s first three scores came from deep as a calm Spain waited for a break in the game. Patiently they sought that touch of disorder to test the Slovenian D.
Finally a Gasper Vidmar dunk set up by Doncic brought the action inside. Doncic put back his own effort over Marc Gasol to demand more from Spain but still Sergio Scariolo’s men stood calm. It was early and there was ample time to probe.
A transition play finish by Pau Gasol presented Spain’s first effort and success inside. Scariolo sent in Sergio Rodriguez for Juan Carlos Navarro late in the quarter, as he had done in every knockout game so far, to offer a dose of acceleration. His first act was to gift the ball to Anthony Randolph off the inbounds, Vidmar extended Slovenia’s lead to 7 from the line.
The Gasols slashed the lead but Slovenia’s success from deep was keeping a little bit of space between the sides. 18 of Slovenia’s 25 first quarter points cam from the outside as they led by 6.
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A Randolph dunk woke up the Spanish defence as Joan Sastre looked to put more pressure on Slovenia on the outside. Alert as they were, they still weren’t stopping much as Vlatko Cancar nailed Slovenia’s seventh three of the night soon after. Spain were now daring Slovenia to come inside as the exterior pressure amped up. Pushing the pace was making it tougher for the underdogs to get back on D with Chacho and Sastre picking them off from the outside with ease.
Spain wanted to gas Slovenia, to let them wear out all their options before the business end of the game. Flurries down the stretch after hanging around with opponents had been sufficient on their last two outings. They were banking on exhausting Slovenia through this games first half or so before moving in for the kill.
The cracks were showing. The touch of impatience Spain wanted for Slovenia. Doncic nailed an eighth trey of the night for Slovenia but still Spain were sauntering. They could time their acceleration while Slovenia just had to keep running. Pau and Willy Hernangomez had a game of catch over the Slovenia bucket before the latter eventually finished.
A ninth three for Slovenia, Doncic again. The bombs were the difference as Slovenia sought to see themselves into the break with any kind of advantage. They needed to give Spain something to think about, something to get them off balance.
Pau with the dunk, on a Spanish transition that went entirely unchallenged. The wear ’em out game was getting it done.
A tenth three, this time Doncic the creator as Klemen Prepelic took the honours. Slovenia were getting a second wind as the break neared but Spain remained at peace among a sea of whistles. Pau from the line and then from deep. No need for Spain to stress. At the half Slovenia led 49-45 but Spain looked the more relaxed running back to the locker room.
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Slovenia couldn’t have asked for a better start to the third. Two stops leading to Jaka Blazic transition finishes. They had given themselves something to work with before Spain got down to business. Randoplh then fed Vidmar for the finish to put Slovenia up by 10, their biggest lead of the game. Spain’s lone lead up to this stage was the game’s opening bucket.
A long two from Ricky Rubio finally got Spain on the board, after nearly 4 minutes of the frame. Spain however were the ones rushing. The Utah Jazz guard looked like he was about to go himself before deferring to Marc, only the younger Gasol wasn’t on the same page and it turned into an easy turnover. Offensive fouls were coming quickly from Scariolo’s side and the Slovenian fans could sense the Spanish nerves.
An eleventh three. This time Randolph to push it to 13 points. Pau was the lone calm man on the floor for Spain and now it was his team mates sluggishly trying to get back on D. Doncic however was taking charge, nearing the triple double as the third came to a close, he was logging big minutes but looking like he was fresh off the bench.
Ziga Dimec made a soft lay-up and Juancho Hernangomez needlessly fouled him. Slovenia were putting a big gap between them and Spain. One big enough to question whether Spain had the gear to chase it down. Slovenia up 16.
A twelfth three, Randolph’s third of the night and a quick counter to Marc’s effort from deep. Spain kept fumbling and giving easy chances to Slovenia but make no mistake, it was the heat from this spirited band of Slovenians that was forcing Spain into errors. With 10 minutes to play, Slovenia could taste a first ever medal, a first final, and a famous victory over Spain as they led 73-57.
A thirteenth three, Sasa Zagorac taking the honours to push the lead out more to start the most important 10 minutes of basketball in Slovenian history.
Finally some urgency from Spain as a Rubio fast break cut the gap to 14 to force Igor Kokoskov to call in the troops. Now was not the time to panic. It was Slovenia’s job to make Spain run. They had control.
Goran went for a dizzy jog before Vidmar put away an open lay-up as Dragic attracted the entire Spanish cover. Rubio with the offensive foul. All the stress was on Spain’s shoulders. Slovenia were flowing and letting what happened happen. Another jog for Goran and a score at the second time of asking.
A fourteenth three. Dragic to push it to a 21 point lead. Slovenia had Spain on the floor, dizzy, and daring them to get back on their feet. Doncic grabbed his tenth board to move within two dimes of a triple double, His dominance of this game was great but that singular brilliance didn’t overshadow an extraordinary team performance. Slovenia had got every player that took the floor to make a difference and here they were, just 5 minutes from history.
Spain cut the lead to 16 but still it was Slovenia that played with poise. Kokoskov called in Doncic and Prepelic for a chat as Aleksej Nikolic took care of things from the line. Dragic returned from a short breather and Slovenia stepped up the pace again. Now Pau drew an offensive foul, putting Vidmar to the line as Slovenia strolled along with calm.
Navarro, inactive since leaving the floor earlier for Chacho, could only frown and shake his head on the bench. There were times when the old master would have been Spain’s option in times of need but he doesn’t have the body to perform such miracles anymore.
Randolph glided through and that was all press row needed to know this was the game. The flood moved to the mixed zone, ready to meet Slovenia’s heroes. Vidmar said the moment would go down in history, Dragic said he had dreamt of a day like this. Doncic? He was full of pride for all around him.
This was not a victory, this was a beatdown. At the time in the game when everyone figured Slovenia might wilt, they pushed harder than this collection of players had ever done so before. Every man did his duty, every man played his party, and every Slovenian shares in the glory.
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