Serbs fight back for gold against Greece

Seemingly headed for victory for the encounter’s greater part, the Greek men’s Under-18 team finally fell to Serbia, 92-89 in the European Championship final in Madrid late on Sunday night. Greece, which went into the final as the tournament’s only undefeated side, led by as much as 16 points in the second quarter. But the Serbians gradually reduced the gap, took the lead for only the second time in the game in the final period, charged ahead and ultimately hung on for a narrow victory and the tournament’s gold medal. The national team’s US-raised center Costas Koufos, who averaged 26.5 points, 13 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots, won the tournament’s MVP award. Offering yet another dazzling display in the final, Koufos was the game’s highest scorer with 33 points. The Ohio State University player also raked in 13 rebounds. «A gold medal would have been better. MVP is usually the guy with the most points, but of course I’m still proud,» said Koufos. «Serbia is a great team. So you can’t be upset about losing to them. We just wanted to do better.» Koufos also received a medal for making the All-Tournament Five team, along with Ricky Rubio of Spain, Edwin Jackson of France, Dairis Bertans of Latvia, and Serbia’s Milan Macvan, who led his team in the final with 32 points and 14 rebounds. Sunday night’s gold medal was Macvan’s second for the summer. It was preceded by a gold with the Serbian team at the Under-19 World Championships. It has been a phenomenal summer for the Serbs, whose win against Greece on Sunday completed a clean sweep of gold medals in youth tournaments this summer. Serbia also captured top spot at the Under-16 and Under-20 European Championships. «I feel sad that such a good performance by the boys didn’t lead to victory. This was a major opportunity for us to win the gold medal. I can’t say that I have any complaints. The boys gave it all they had,» said Greece’s coach Nikos Kerameas. «The Serbs played well in the final period. They fed the ball under the basket and found solutions which we didn’t expect to shape the game they wanted.» By halftime, Greece threatened to turn the final into a one-sided affair but Serbia began its rebound, from 16 points down, in the third term. With 1:24 left in the quarter, Serbia brought the game to within two points. The prospects for Greece brightened again with less than a minute of play to go in the third term, when impressive efforts by Koufos and Costas Sloukas, the team captain, helped re-establish a promising lead, 65-58. To make things even better, Koufos was on target with a three-point shot on the buzzer to give Greece a commanding 10-point lead at the final break. But the Serbs did not panic. The game started to flow their way in the fourth quarter. Serbia managed to take the lead for the first time since the first quarter and extended its advantage to 80-76 with 2:28 left on the clock. The Serbs went nine points ahead after Stefan Stojacic, who scored 21 points for the game, stretched the lead from the free-throw line with 48 seconds to go. Greece was back to within two points, at 91-89, with 13 seconds remaining. Serbia extended its narrow lead by a point with 11 seconds left and held on for the final 92-89 score after two three-point attempts by Greece both went astray. «Three slack minutes at the end of the third period and the beginning of the fourth cost us the title,» said Sloukas. Serbia’s coach Dejan Mijatovic, who rotated his men to the maximum to eventually wear down the Greek team in the second half, described the win as the toughest for his team at the tournament. «We’ve never had to win like this in all the tournament,» said Mijatovic. «I think we deserved this, for winning in this way, but also for beating all the favorites. Spain was the first favorite, I always said this, and we beat them. Now we’ve beaten a very good team [Greece] and I’m so surprised; four gold medals for my country… We had a lot of pressure on us because of all the other gold medals. Under 16s, Under 20s, Under 19s, and now Under 18s. I can’t believe it. It’s just amazing.»