European champions Spain on thin ice
LJUBLJANA - European basketball champions Spain face a tricky quarter-final against a revamped Serbia on Wednesday after flirting with early elimination at the 2013 tournament in Slovenia.
An 86-81 overtime defeat by Italy on Monday consigned Spain to a fourth-placed finish in their section, barely enough to avoid what would have been an embarrassing early exit from the 24-team tournament.
It came after they also lost to Slovenia and Greece but coach Juan Antonio Orenga, a former Real Madrid center, was upbeat about his team's chances of winning a third successive European title after finishing runners-up to the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics.
"Serbia, France and Lithuania, who were our potential quarter-final rivals before the match with Italy, are all in the same bracket in terms of quality and it makes no difference who we drew," he told reporters.
"We respect Serbia but I think they too will be worried about playing us. Either way, it should be a great game to watch."
Centre Marc Gasol, who plies his trade for NBA outfit Memphis Grizzlies, added: "What I've seen so far is that Serbia play good basketball with a quick transition of the ball and tight defense, so it should be fun."
Spain overwhelmed Serbia in the 2009 final before losing a tight 2010 World championship quarter-final, when Milos Teodosic sunk an audacious three-pointer from 10 meters to send the Serbian through.
Versatile playmaker Teodosic and several other injured stalwarts are missing this time but a young and athletic Serbian team, led by 30-year old center Nenad Krstic, finished top of their pool after surprise wins over 2003 winners Lithuania and 2011 runners-up France.
Guard Nemanja Nedovic, one of the newcomers, shone against the French with five three-pointers and a slam-dunk to finish the game with 17 points, overshadowing San Antonio Spurs playmaker Tony Parker in Sunday's 77-65 defeat of France.
Serbia's trophy-laden coach Dusan Ivkovic, who guided the former Yugoslavia to three European championships and one world title, warned his inexperienced squad of complacency.
"Our goal remains to finish in the top seven and qualify for next year's World Championship in Spain, meaning that we have to win one more game to achieve that," the 69-year old told the Serbian Basketball Association's official website (www.kss.rs).
"We have to stay focused although beating France amounts to a great victory because they have the NBA's top playmaker in Parker and it should instill even more confidence into my young team," he said.
Hosts Slovenia, roared on by a full house in the Stozice Arena in every game and looking for their first medal as an independent nation, take on France in Wednesday's other quarter-final.
Croatia, who won seven games in a row after a crushing 68-40 defeat by Spain in their opening game, take on underdogs Ukraine in Thursday's opening quarter-final before Lithuania lock horns with Italy.
Croatia are aiming for their first podium finish since winning the bronze medal in the 1995 tournament and coach Jasmin Repesa appealed to the fans to make the short trip across the border and create an electrifying atmosphere against the Ukrainians.
"We are the favorites but still need our supporters to come here in droves and help us win the most important game of the tournament," he told Croatian media after seeing forward Bojan Bogdanovic sink 13 of his 22 points in overtime to down the Italians.
"We've been waiting for this opportunity for years and hence we need to feel like the home team against an unpredictable and athletic Ukrainian team, who have nothing to lose after defying the odds to get this far."
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)