Source : NESHA STARCEVIC, AP Sports Writer
KAUNAS, Lithuania (AP)—When France last went to the Olympic basketball tournament, it won the silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Games and Tony Parker was a promising teenager who led the country’s Under-18 team to the European title.
Parker made sure France will be back at the Olympics when he scored 22 points to lead his team past Russia 79-71 Friday and set up a European championship final against defending gold medalist Spain.
“I’ve been chasing this for 11 years and I’m very happy that I can finally say I’m going to the Olympics,” Parker said. “I had tears in my eyes when the buzzer came and I knew we’d won the game.”
Juan Carlos Navarro scored 35 points in a performance his coach called a “masterpiece” as Spain beat Macedonia 92-80 in the first semifinal on Friday.
The European championship finalists automatically qualify for next year’s London Games. The next four teams go to an additional qualifying tournament. Greece beat Serbia 87-77 earlier to join Lithuania, Macedonia and Russia in that group.
France, which got some big plays and 19 points from Nicolas Batum, reached the championship game for the first time. It won silver in 1949, but the tournament was played in a different format and did not have a final. France won bronze medals in 1995 and 2005.
“It was our year and we played great tonight,” said Parker, who can now also help France win its first European championship.
Parker was the MVP of that junior team in 2000, the start of a career that has included three NBA championships with the San Antonio Spurs, the MVP honors of the 2007 finals and three NBA All-Star appearances.
France went on a 10-2 run to finish the third quarter and pull away. Going into the fourth, the run was 16-4, with eight points coming from Ali Traore.
“We know Ali is a huge potential offensively and we use him to score,” France coach Vincent Collet said.
“Our goal was to qualify for the Olympics and we played our best game. We controlled all the best assets of the Russian team and the rebounding, especially Batum.”
Batum’s seven rebounds helped France have 14 more boards than Russia, which was undefeated until the semifinal.
“Tony was Tony, but the guy who really hurt us was Batum, he made big plays at big times,” Russia’s American coach David Blatt said.
Batum, of the Portland Trail Blazers, had a three-point play for a nine-point French lead late in the fourth, drove along the line for a dunk for 75-66 and grabbed a big offensive rebound with less than a minute on the clock.
Andrei Kirilenko led Russia with 21 points.
Pau Gasol had 22 points and 17 rebounds for Spain.
Navarro scored 19 points in the third quarter to break open a close game. Spain coach Sergio Scariolo did not hold back in praising his point guard.
“He’s like a masterpiece you see in Louvre or Prado, he is like one of the best artists, he has his own inspiration … He is out of this planet,” Scariolo said.
“We are very proud to have reached the goal of qualifying for the Olympics. It was tough. They play with heart and class and they play smart.”
Macedonia has been the surprise team of the tournament and gave Spain a tough game, leading 45-44 at halftime.
Then Navarro took over.
“He was amazing, incredible, he did everything on both ends,” said Spain power forward Serge Ibaka, who had 11 points. Ibaka, a native of Congo who plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA, is in his first tournament with Spain, his adopted country.
Macedonia coach Marin Dokuzovski said his team came into the game “as always with a big heart and to play hard.”
“We knew whom we were playing and that it would be hard to surprise Spain. We didn’t play such good defense as before, my players were getting tired and Spain’s offensive rebounds hurt us,” Dokuzovski said.
Bo McCalebb, the American-born Macedonia point guard, led his team with 25 points and five assists, while forward Pero Antic had 17 points and nine rebounds.
Pau Gasol, who struggled with his shot, had nine offensive rebounds as Spain outscored Macedonia 22-6 from second-chance opportunities. Gasol was 8-of-20 from the field.
Younger brother Marc Gasol had 10 rebounds and 11 points as Spain pulled down 15 more rebounds than Macedonia.
Ricky Rubio, the guard signed by the Minnesota Timberwolves, had seven rebounds and four assist to go with five points in 22 minutes.
Classification 5th-8th Place
Greece 87, Serbia 77