Greece squeezes past Russia

Greece overcame a dreadful start yesterday to defeat Russia 66-61 and reach the semifinals of Eurobasket 2005, in Serbia. It is Greece’s first semifinal appearance in a European basketball championship since 1997. Greece was awaiting last night the result of the late France-Lithuania game to find out whom it will play tomorrow for a place in the final. With its victory, it has already clinched a berth at next year’s World Championship in Japan. Russia is a tall, athletic team and, during the first period, Greece appeared afraid to take the ball inside. As usual, the Greek players’ outside shooting was dreadful. In previous matches, center Lazaros Papadopoulos would spin and release a hook shot way above the defenders. The first time he tried it against the Russians, he was blocked and didn’t attempt another shot again. The Russians raced into a 13-2 lead, but two late baskets let Greece finish the first period only 13-6 behind. The bright side was that the Russians were pretty ineffective on offense, relying mostly on Utah Jazz star Andrei Kirilenko for scoring. Things picked up in the second period, as the Greeks finally found a way to score, first through guards Nikos Hadzivrettas and Theodoros Papaloucas and, crucially, through forward Dimos Dikoudis, who dared to challenge the Russians inside. Russia still led 33-26 at the half but its shooting collapsed in the third period, when its players were only able to score seven points to Greece’s 18. The Russians either took outside shots, and missed (they would end up with a dreadful four of 27 attempted three-pointers) or, once inside, were forced to turn the ball over. Whatever this Greek team’s shortcomings, it is the best defensive outfit ever seen. Not only are they good at harassing the opponent’s offense, they usually get the rebounds as well, whereas their predecessors were too casual too often about blocking the opponent’s road to the boards. Greece first led 42-40 through a Papaloucas three-pointer with 1:53 to go in the third quarter and took a 44-40 lead into the final quarter. The lead was extended to 48-40 as the Greek players were now regularly scoring layups over their taller opponents. Russia closed within a point (50-49) but Papaloucas made it 58-53 with three drives to the basket. The Russians did not get closer than three points thereafter and Papaloucas closed the scoring with five of six free throws. Papaloucas led all Greek scorers with 23 points; Dikoudis followed with 11. Kirilenko led Russia with 20 points and 16 rebounds.