Source : NESHA STARCEVIC, AP Sports Writer
Bo McCalebb scored 23 points to lead Macedonia into the semifinals of the European basketball championship for the first time with a stunning 67-65 victory over host Lithuania, a small country itself but a basketball giant.
Wednesday’s victory meant Macedonia will play defending champion Spain in the semifinals, not only to make the final but also to qualify for the London Olympics.
“I am not European and I don’t know the importance of making it to the Olympics, but I’m sure I’ll find out shortly,” McCalebb said with a smile.
McCalebb became a Macedonian citizen last year, taking up an offer after two guards from the team came down with injuries.
He had never played club basketball in Macedonia, but had made a name for himself in neighboring Serbia with Partizan Belgrade, going to the EuroLeague Final Four in the top club competition in Europe. He also did that with his present club, Montepaschi Siena of Italy.
Macedonia is a landlocked country north of Greece and south of Serbia, slightly larger than Vermont, with just over 2 million people. It became independent from Yugoslavia 20 years ago.
In basketball terms, it never achieved any success, although it made the second round at the Europeans two years ago. Now it is one of the continent’s top teams.
“It feels good, man,” McCalebb said. “We got a big win today, against Lithuania, on their home court and all their fans. Today everyone was against us, 15,000 against us, but we pulled it up.”
McCalebb came into the game averaging 20.6 points and did his share again.
“I am doing what I love to do, play basketball. Everyone dreams about playing in front of the home court like this,” he said.
“Nobody knows anything about us, we can just play free with no pressure and play hard. The coach just told me to be aggressive and to try to keep the game close,” said McCalebb, who has been playing with a sore back.
Vlado Ilievski hit a 3-pointer with 11 seconds remaining to give Macedonia a 66-65 lead.
Lithuania, which had turned the ball over in its previous possession, called two timeouts in the last 10 seconds, but Simas Jasaitis missed a potential game-winning jumper. Pero Antic grabbed the rebound and Ilievski drew a foul, converting one of the two free throws.
“It’s a huge win for us,” said Vojdan Stojanovski, who hit all five of his 3-point shots. “We kept the game close, we kept them to 65 points, we played very good defense and the pressure was on them at the end.”
While the home fans left the arena in stunned silence, a few dozen Macedonian supporters cheered and sang long after the game was over.
Macedonia was already the surprise team of the tournament and its dream run continued despite the absence of one of its most influential players, power forward Todor Gechevski, who was out with a broken hand.
“I don’t think anyone expected this. This is the biggest success for Macedonia ever in any sport,” coach Marin Dokuzovski said.
In Wednesday’s other quarterfinal, Juan Carlos Navarro scored 17 of his 26 points in the third quarter to help Spain pull away.
Spain outscored Slovenia 36-14 in the third after getting off to a slow start, with Navarro sparking that run with four 3-pointers.
Los Angeles Lakers center Pau Gasol added 19 points and 16 rebounds for Spain, despite shooting just 6 of 17 from the field.
“We played very badly in the first half, but we found ourselves in the second,” Navarro said.
Spain scored more points in the third quarter than in the first half when it led 35-31 after limiting Slovenia to only eight points in the second quarter.
Spain took the lead for good when Felipe Reyes made it 30-28 on a three-point play with 1:36 left in the second quarter.
“You have to give credit to Slovenia, how they started, they gave us a lot of trouble under the basket,” Spain coach Sergio Scariolo said. “Our comeback started already in the second quarter, our defense changed. … Then Juan Carlos exploded and killed the game.”
Guard Goran Dragic of the Houston Rockets led Slovenia with 14 points.
Slovenia will play Lithuania for a chance to place in the top six, which would keep alive its hopes of qualifying for the Olympics.
The two finalists will qualify directly for the Olympics and the next four teams will go an additional qualifying tournament.