Greek juniors beat Croatia 73-64 to earn third place at Worlds

Greece earned third place in the seventh World Junior Basketball Championships yesterday by defeating Croatia 73-64 in Thessaloniki. Despite this, the Greek players’ and coaches’ feelings last night were mixed. The players knew that, the day before, they had blown the chance to aim for the gold medal after they had inexplicably collapsed in the fourth quarter of their semifinal against Lithuania, contriving to turn a 59-50 lead into a 72-75 loss. Thus Greece was unable to repeat its exploit of 1995, in Athens, when it won first place, dominating all the teams it played, including a US team that featured current NBA stars Vince Carter and Stephon Marbury. In 1999, its only other appearance at the world finals, it had finished in seventh place. The game against Croatia also turned out to be a scrappy one, with Greece, obviously the most talented team, contriving to keep the score close through turnovers, over-quick shots and sloppy passing. The team’s two stars, center Sofoklis Schortsanitis and shooting guard Costas Vassiliadis had a mediocre night. Schortsanitis, recently drafted by NBA club LA Clippers, was pulled out with eight minutes to go. Vassiliadis, who also played a subpar game against Lithuania, at least struck the decisive blow 27 seconds from the end when he scored and converted a free throw to put Greece up by six points. Ian Vougioukas, a 2.11-meter (6-foot-11) backup to Schortsanitis, who was not used at all in the semifinal, was Greece’s top scorer, with 20 points. «This (bronze) medal is a morale booster,» coach Nikos Stavropoulos said. Late at night, Lithuania was playing favorite Australia in the final. In other games yesterday, the United States withstood a second-half comeback by Puerto Rico to win 82-80 and earn fifth place; Slovenia downed Turkey 67-63 to earn seventh place; Venezuela scraped by Argentina, 78-76, to finish ninth; and Nigeria triumphed 99-70 over South Korea to win the match for eleventh place. On Saturday, Angola beat China 85-73 to win 13th place and Malaysia beat Iran 77-67 to avoid last place. The World Championships were to be held in Malaysia but were switched at the last minute due to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The players may have felt safer in Greece, but the tournament was marred by extremely low attendance.

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