Greek hoopsters in quarterfinals

Greece ensured qualification in the quarterfinals of the men’s basketball competition on Saturday by defeating Angola 88-56. Four teams advance out of each of the two qualifying groups. Greece can finish as high as second if it defeats Puerto Rico by 13 points or more today. Victory with less than 13 would ensure third place, ahead of the United States, while defeat would see Greece fall to fourth place. In each of the three likely outcomes, Greece’s most probable opponents in the quarterfinals are Italy, Argentina and Spain respectively. Angola had stretched Puerto Rico, an easy winner over the United States, to the limit, losing 83-80 in the end. Against Greece, it started well, shooting sharply from the outside and defending well inside, despite the fact that the Angolans are a shorter team (average height 1.94 meters, compared to Greece’s 2.02-meter average). But this did not last long: Angola’s last lead was 9-7. From then on, Antonis Fotsis and Frangiskos Alvertis took over, helping Greece to a 23-15 advantage at the end of the first period. Greece quickly established a double-digit lead in the second quarter, which it never relinquished. At halftime, the score was 43-25, with Alvertis the game’s top scorer with 11 points. In the second half, Greece kept extending the lead, with forwards Dimos Dikoudis and Costas Tsartsaris leading the scoring. Overall, they scored 15 and 13 points respectively. Alvertis also had 13, while Nikos Hadzivrettas and Fotsis had 10 each. Even such a blowout, however, revealed some weaknesses in the Greek team, the chief of which seems to be an inability to score easily in drives to the basket. Besides its tall forwards – Tsartsaris, Alvertis, Fotsis and Michalis Kakiouzis, all of them at least 2.06 meters tall, and center Lazaros Papadopoulos, 2.10 meters, Greece has five guards – Hadzivrettas, Dimitris Diamantidis, Theodoros Papaloukas, Nikos Zissis and Vassilis Spanoulis – who can take the ball to the basket, instead of merely relying on the outside shot. However, all of the above show a reluctance to drive forcefully and finish the penetration with a dunk or by drawing a foul. The presence of a defender causes them often to resort to unnecessary contortions to put the ball to the basket with a finesse move. Often, they end up missing easy baskets. A second weakness, which coach Panayiotis Yiannakis indirectly alluded to at a press conference when praising Angola’s players, is that the Greeks fail to challenge for each offensive rebound. The day’s best match was that between Lithuania and the United States, which the Lithuanians, with the help of thousands of enthusiastic compatriots in the stands, aided by the Greek fans, defeated 94-90. Compared with how the tournament has gone so far, this was hardly a surprise. In fact, many experts had written off the match as a potential blowout. The Americans, however, made it competitive because they played their best basketball of the tournament for two-and-a-half quarters. Unfortunately for them, this span did not include the final quarter. The Lithuanians are certainly the best shooting team, inside and, especially, outside. Even their 2.18-meter center, Eurelijus Zukauskas, scored a three-pointer early on. The Lithuanians capitalized on their impressive shooting to open a 17-13 lead midway through the first quarter. Gradually, however, the Americans began to tighten their defense, harassing the Lithuanian shooters at every opportunity. More importantly, they showed signs of finally playing as a team, taking their time to build up their offense and taking the ball inside, to centers Tim Duncan and Carlos Boozer. Their newly cohesive game allowed them to pull ahead 26-23 after one quarter, 49-44 at halftime and 69-67 entering into the final quarter. In the fourth quarter, the Americans held on to their lead, even extending it to 84-79 with three-and-a-half minutes to go. However, their offensive scheme had broken down: They had reverted to outside shots which, for a while, fell in. However, their scoring touch deserted them right then, while the Lithuanians recovered theirs and went on a 9-0 run, which included a four-point play by guard Sarunas Jasikevicius. The US team’s attempt at a comeback fizzled easily and the Lithuanians celebrated accordingly, along with thousands of their adoring fans (which, by the way, had chanted «Hellas! Hellas» several times before the game started, in order to get the Greek fans on their side. They had them, anyway). Jasikevicius was the game’s top scorer with 28 points, including seven three-pointers. Richard Jefferson topped the US team with 20. The most entertaining game, due to its open nature, was the one between Argentina and New Zealand. The New Zealanders had made a surprising run to the semifinals at the 2002 World Championships, which everyone considered a fluke. In Athens, they started badly, with close losses to Italy and China, but they beat world champions Serbia-Montenegro 90-87 and nearly upset Argentina, the world runners-up in 2002, on Saturday. Although they fell behind in the score midway through the second quarter, they kept the game close and lost 98-94. Argentina, in fact, only ensured victory 12 seconds before the end when forward Luis Scola grabbed the rebound from a missed free throw by Argentina’s big star, Emmanuel Ginobili, and was fouled, making a free throw of his own to make it 96-92. Scola and Ginobili led the scoring for Argentina, with 25 and 19 points, respectively, and Fabricio Oberto, a former Olympiakos player, added 14 points along with a team-high of nine rebounds and five assists. Guard Philip Jones and forward Pero Cameron scored 25 and 21, respectively, for New Zealand. Earlier, Spain rallied in the fourth quarter to defeat Serbia-Montenegro 76-68. The game confirmed the fact that the world champions are sliding badly, something also noticeable at last year’s European Championships, where they couldn’t do better than seventh place. They have lost three of their four games but are lucky enough to play the tournament’s weakest team, China, in their last qualifier today and are likely to avoid a humiliating early exit, probably at Australia’s expense. Guard Jose Manuel Caldron led the undefeated Spaniards in scoring, with 15 points. Swingman Dejan Bodiroga led Serbia-Montenegro with 14. Puerto Rico defeated Australia more easily than the final scoreline (87-82) indicates, while Italy defeated a surprisingly ineffective Chinese team 89-52. However, this team full of youngsters may surprise us all at the Beijing Olympics.

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