RIO DE JANEIRO: An aging Spanish squad’s dreams of taking Rio Olympic gold after two silver-medal finishes behind US NBA squads suffered a setback Sunday (Monday in Manila) with a 72-70 shock loss to Croatia.
In a battle of NBA talent, Dario Saric swatted away Pau Gasol’s game-tying inside shot attempt at the final buzzer to seal an stunning upset of the world’s second-ranked squad in a Group B preliminary round game.
“It’s always nice to block a big player, a big name in Euro basketball like Pau Gasol,” Saric said. “This is the cherry on the cake, my block, because this team deserved this win because this team fights all the game.”
Now the Spanish, who were talking about one more chance to defeat the Americans in an Olympic final, have to worry about simply advancing to the quarter-finals.
“We can’t even dare to make those kind of thoughts,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said. “We have to win the next game. Period. Then we can think of the third one.”
But Scariolo did note how Spain overcame an opening loss to win last year’s EuroBasket title.
“We’ve managed to find a way in other competitions, which doesn’t mean it’s going to happen again. We will look forward to the rest of the competition with optimism.”
Gasol, a two-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers now at San Antonio, is among six Spanish players over 30. He had game highs of 26 points and nine rebounds while Nikola Mirotic added 19 points for Spain.
“We need to keep our heads up and move forward,” Mirotic said. “This is just the beginning. I know my team can do better. We must get focused on what we can do better.
“I think we are the best in difficult situations like the one we’re in now.”
With no margin for error, it doesn’t help that Spain’s next game is against host Brazil.
“We can’t make mistakes any more. The next game against Brazil will be even harder,” Mirotic said. “We need to keep trust in our teammates. What happened today will bring us together.”
No ‘two-day wonder team’
Bojan Bogdanovic, a guard for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, led Croatia with 23 points. Saric, who joins the Philadelphia 76ers next season, had five points, seven rebounds and five assists.
“As much as this victory means to us, we don’t want to be a two-day wonder team,” Croatian captain Roko Ukic said. “We will approach every game like it’s our last. Bottom line, we need to keep it going.”
Croatia coach Aleksandar Petrovic wanted to keep the feat in perspective as well.
“We achieved a huge result,” Petrovic said. “But it’s only one victory.”
Spain led by as much as 50-36 early in the third quarter before an 11-1 Croatian spurt closed the gap.
“We managed to be in control until the fourth quarter,” said Scariolo, who cited five turnovers and five offensive rebounds by Croatia as last-quarter blunders.
Croatia began the final period with a 10-2 run, seizing a 57-56 lead on Luka Babic’s fast break drive the length of the court that ended in a slam dunk with 6:25 to play.
“When we tied the game, the Spanish team entered into the panic,” Petrovic said.
The teams exchanged the lead six times, the last when Krunoslav Simon stole the ball from Sergio Rodriguez and made a layup to put Croatia ahead 69-67.
Simon added two free throws to stretch the margin, Mirotic answered with a 3-pointer for Spain and Saric added a free throw to create the final margin.