Basketballers impress again

The national men’s basketball team made its best possible preparation for next month’s European Championships in Sweden by capping off an undefeated run in a four-nation friendly tournament in Thessaloniki with a convincing 81-61 victory last night over Serbia and Montenegro, the reigning world and European champion. In its previous games, Greece had defeated Australia and Bulgaria. In last night’s other encounter, Australia bid the Thessaloniki tournament farewell with a comfortable 101-79 win over Bulgaria for its only win in the competition and third place. Bulgaria lost all three games. Serbia and Montenegro ended second, losing only to Greece. Several key players were, however, missing from the ranks of Serbia and Montenegro, which has been plagued by various problems lately after a glorious recent past that was highlighted by a stunning victory against a full-strength US «Dream Team» for last year’s world title. Serbia and Montenegro had also won the world title in 1998 in a competition that lacked an NBA-manned American team, as well as the past four European Championships. On the contrary, Greece’s national team seems to have bounced back from a lackluster stretch in recent years. The team, now led by Yiannis Ioannidis, a notorious disciplinarian, earned its berth for the upcoming European Championships in Sweden in commanding fashion with just one loss, against Spain, in 10 qualifying games. That record, combined with the team’s solid form displayed at the Thessaloniki tournament over the weekend, strongly suggests that Greece will travel to Sweden as a medal contender. At the previous Europeans, in 2001, Greece had ended a disappointing ninth. Ioannidis, who tends to avoid offering players praise, did comment on his side’s performance against Serbia and Montenegro last night. «We played a fantastic defense, had clear minds, and are gradually improving,» Ioannidis told reporters. «The positive thing about tonight’s [yesterday’s] game is that we played like a team. We were equally good in defense and offense. This could have been our best performance,» he added. Ioannidis, who took over the Greek team following its disappointing ninth place at the previous Europeans in 2001, seems to have fine-tuned the side for medal contention in Sweden. He has made no secret of the fact that he wants to return from Sweden with a medal-winning side. Greece has won three medals during the long history of the Europeans – third in 1949, first in 1987, and second in 1989. Greece will end its preparations, beginning this week, with four away games against leading competition. The national team will first meet Italy, then Spain, and will end its campaign with two further games against Serbia and Montenegro.