Source : NESHA STARCEVIC, AP Sports Writer
VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP)—For the Russian basketball team, the victory meant much more than usual. This win was dedicated to the ice hockey players killed in a Russian plane crash.
Wearing black tags on their uniforms, the Russians beat Finland 79-60 on Thursday to advance to the quarterfinals of the European basketball championship.
It was an emotional victory, coming a day after 36 players, coaches and staff of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team died when their private plane went down in western Russia.
“We dedicate the victory to the victims of the plane crash,” Russia power forward Semen Antonov said. “Yesterday we were crying with the whole world. Rest in peace.”
A minute of silence was observed before Thursday’s games.
“Today’s game was very important on two levels,” said Russia’s American coach, David Blatt. “First we wanted very badly to qualify and we did that. Secondly and more importantly, we played the game in memory of the hockey team from Yaroslavl. As sportsmen, they are our brothers and sisters.
“We played the game with passion … and with a way of working hard, demonstrating the qualities of sportsmen that honor their memory. That was what the game was more about than anything else.”
Andrei Kirilenko led a balanced Russian attack with 14 points.
Also advancing to the quarterfinals was Macedonia, a small former Yugoslav republic which marked its Independence Day by beating Georgia 65-63. American born-guard Bo McCalebb scored the winning basket, making a driving layup with two seconds left.
Nikolaos Zisis, who finished with a game-high 19 points, sank two late 3-pointers and Antonios Fotsis added another as Greece beat Slovenia 69-60 in the late game.
Macedonia and Russia are both 3-0 in the second-round stage. The two finalists will clinch spots at next year’s London Olympics, and four other teams will go to an additional qualifying tournament.
Greece is now 2-1 and Slovenia is 1-2.
McCalebb gave his adopted nation a present on the 20th anniversary of Macedonia’s independence.
“Before the tournament, no one expected us to do anything, so we tried to take advantage of that,” McCalebb said. “Everybody was talking about the other teams. And nobody mentioned us.”
After a time-out, McCalebb dribbled the ball as the clock ticked down before driving to the basket and putting in a left-handed layup for the win. McCalebb led all scorers with 27 points.
“Everybody in the gym knew they would play pick-and-roll and that McCalebb would drive to the left and still we couldn’t stop him,” Georgia coach Igor Kokoskov said.
McCalebb, who was born and raised in New Orleans, never played club basketball in Macedonia but led Partizan Belgrade from neighboring Serbia to the Euroleague Final Four. He is now with Montepaschi Siena and also guided the Italian team to the Final Four.
Macedonia, looking for a playmaker after injuries to two players, offered him citizenship last year.
Georgia (0-3) played without Atlanta Hawks center Zaza Pachulia, the team’s second leading scorer, who has been ruled out for the tournament because of a left calf injury. The Georgians also lost point guard George Tsintsadze to a left knee injury midway through the second quarter.
“They’ve beaten better teams than Georgia, but it’s a tough loss,” said Kokoskov, an assistant with the Phoenix Suns. “Maybe it’s better to lose by 20.”
Greece blew a 15-point lead and was down by two at the start of the fourth quarter.
But Slovenia missed four free throws down the stretch and Zisis hit the big shots when his team needed them.