Two classification games for the Olympic Qualifying Tournament started today’s action, and can I just say, what a great way to structure a basketball event. Even though Germany, the Czech Republic and Serbia and Montenegro were knocked out of EuroBasket a round earlier, they were still playing relevant basketball games. The poor Czech Republic had another contentious call go against them, leading to another late-game shot, ultimately resulting in a loss. The day’s games set the table perfectly for the semi-finals which followed. Wins for Germany and Serbia mean they are now a step closer to realising their Olympic dreams, but the real highlights of the day were the two semi-finals.
Spain defeats Hungary 69-60 (box score)
Since the turn of the millennium, Spain hasn’t lost to Hungary in the EuroBasket. Hungary has been characterised by boom-bust basketball while Spain can make you feel like you’re stuck on offence. Getting into action early and shooting well was going to be key for the Hungarians. What happened when the Spanish got into the key was going to be critical for the game. Would Virág Kiss, Cyesha Goree and Bernadett Hatar protect the cup and stay out of foul trouble? In the early going they did a great job of making things tough for the Spaniards, even with Alba Torrens coming out of the gate ready to make tough shots. She had ten points in the first three minutes of play, kickstarting her nation’s offence.
Hungary did a much better job of moving Spain’s defence than Germany was able to in the quarter-finals. Purposeful movement, pre-action and an abundance of passing allowed them to generate looks inside and out, but the Spanish defence was still winning the battle in the first. After ten minutes, Spain had the lead 18-14.
Questions about Hungary’s consistency were answered throughout this contest. They understood the task at hand and brought an unwavering fight that kept them alive all night. The Spanish were a class above in the first half and a team-wide commitment to capitalising on the individual brilliance of Torrens to start the affair is something only the best of the best can do. Understanding that they had both the momentum and the scoreboard ascendancy allowed them to play the win and the metagame, not just the basketball. The fact they were actually able to do that shows the type of team they are. A 30-18 scoreboard was actualised by a Maite Cazorla-made three-pointer and Hungary’s second time out in three-and-a-half minutes.
The second half started with the same score the first half finished with; 38-28 Spain. Hungary was in need of a performance like their third quarter against Serbia and although it didn’t happen quite like that matchup, they got the scoreboard to 50-46 at the end of the third, slowly chipping away. It was a bit of everything for the Hungarians and they set the scene for an all-time finish only down four to start the fourth.
Two Hungarian fouls in the first 21 seconds of the fourth and then a phantom call a bit over a minute later were going to make things difficult for a team that was down, but what a great run by Hungary. As Cyesha Goree said after their quarter-final win: “Everybody’s not like ‘Oh, Hungary is supposed to win.’ They didn’t really count on us to get this far.” Their journey has been motivating and as they ride their bumps they bring you along.
Serbian head coach Marina Maljković lauded Hungary’s basketball infrastructure boom following their hosting of the 2015 Women’s EuroBasket. It shows what resourcing women’s basketball can lead to. Look at where they are now; a team that’s extremely personable, easy to connect with and well on its way to becoming a steady fixture in women’s basketball competitions globally, just eight years later.
As for Spain, they already are this nation. From beginning to finish they played their game; tight, disciplined defence which eventuated in transition opportunities and three-level offence in the half court. They’ll be sure to put on a show in the final.
Belgium defeats France 67-63 (box score)
The Belgian Cats have been firing all tournament long on both ends of the court. They’ve had more assists than their opponents and have had more made field goals in each contest so far. Through four games they have 134 made field goals and 127 assists: what the actual fuck? This has been accompanied by tremendous team defence anchored by block fiend Kyara Linskens. It is equal parts suffocating and damaging as they know when and how to dictate a late-clock situation or force a turnover, leading to easy points.
France is 5-1 in their last six encounters against Belgium at EuroBasket. Les Bleues have controlled all 160 minutes of their games so far with a free-flowing offence predicated on gorgeous ball movement and stingy defending.
Linskens and Sandrine Gruda tipped us off and it was on from the very beginning. Neither of these teams had faced a challenge quite like their semi-final counterparts and both sides were ready for a battle. Meesseman took the scoring reins and could sense the occasion with her team finding good looks but not being able to cash in on them. She had 12 of Belgium’s first 14 which included points from three, inside and the charity stripe, showing her full bag.
With an 11-0 run to finish the first, Belgium was up 18-8 to begin the second. Defence was the key early on with offensive opportunities only showing themselves for a moment. Belgium was playing connected, able to find the chinks in the armour during the first, but it was France’s turn to start the second. Back-to-back Julie Vanloo threes brought the Belgium lead back to 25-16 and after a French time out the game had somehow become even more intense.
France was working their way into and around the Belgian defence. Belgium was raining hell from beyond, with Julie Allemand, Antonia Delaere and Meesseman joining Vanloo’s party. At the half, Belgium was shooting 50% from beyond on nine makes, of which Vanloo had five, en route to a 44-30 lead. This felt like an even match, but as the old adage goes, three is more than two.
Les Bleues (that actually means The Blues, BTW) had a stronger sense of the moment in the second half. Their defence was stifling, winning the first half of the third 8-3, bringing the score to 47-38. With 4:07 left in the quarter, Alexia Chartereau checked in and was huge in keeping France afloat. She scored eight crucial points, drew a foul and even blocked a Meesseman post-up.
With Linskens in foul trouble, Bethy Mununga was seizing her opportunity. She grabbed four o-boards, four d-boards and got two steals in her first ten minutes of court time. Even giving up four inches to Linskens, Mununga filled her shoes tremendously. Players like her are commonplace in great teams, yet never taken for granted. She was instrumental in Belgium being able to keep the lead at 54-46 to finish the third.
A shot clock beating three from Valeriane Vukosavlejić ignited the crowd the start the fourth and cut the lead to five. Back and forth the game went as the Cats were happy to watch the clock piss seconds away. Before you knew it, the game had 5:52 to play with Belgium up 61-51. Two Marine Fauthoux free throws, Belgian basket, bizarre Fauthoux turnover, Fauthoux and-1 and an unconverted Fauthoux and-1 later and we’re at 63-58 with a complete momentum shift with 3:10 to play. A Janelle Salaun three and Marieme Badiane basket sandwiched a Meesseman midi and it was 65-63 Cats. Fans on both sides were going crazy, all chanting in French as this game was coming to a close.
France was right there, they were about to do the unthinkable, but it wasn’t to be. Allemand was at the line with 0.4 seconds to go and she’s cash on both. A 67-63 scoreboard is unbeatable at this point. What an incredible show from France and Belgium.
They did basketball proud with this performance. Neither team was going to lose this game; one of them was going to win and they were going to have to earn it. Both sides would have been worthy dance partners for Spain and this edition of EuroBasket will see it be Belgium.
What a way to send EuroBasket into its last day of action. After all four teams left everything on the line in the semis, it’s hard to imagine how Spain and Belgium will find another gear to get to as they face off in the final.