It was set to be a dramatic day in the final round of action of Group E but Belgium played the spoiler with a heroic display against Latvia.
Somebody in the Ukraine camp should buy a round for the Belgian team. The Lions were only playing for pride on Sunday against Latvia but treated it like their lives depended on it. After an uninspiring first half, the game came to life with a surge by Belgium. Leading by 9 points with 5 minutes to go in the final frame, the result looked in the bag but Latvia came to life down the stretch.
Latvia managed to cut the deficit to a single point in the final minute and looked set to sneak out with a win. When a misplayed pass by Belgium gave Latvia possession with 38.5 seconds left, the stage was set for the favourites to escape. Belgium’s defence stood firm however and Latvia opted to let them play it out rather than fouling quickly. Sacha Massot made them pay with a dunk to stretch the lead to 59-56 with just 8 seconds left. Dairis Bertans went for a three to tie it up but he missed and the upset was in the books. Belgium win 60-56.
For Latvia it was a dire example of live by the three die by the three ball. Having shot 15/29 to rout Ukraine on Wednesday, they went just 5/29 from long range. This compounded their overall issues from the field where they finished with just 29.4 per cent shooting.
The result means Sunday’s other two games in Group E, Ukraine vs Lithuania and Serbia vs France, will only decide seedings for the next round. Had Latvia won then Ukraine would have needed to beat Lithuania to progress. Instead Pooh Jeter and company progress to the quarter finals for the first time in their history, quite a feat for a nation whose previous best was 13th back in 1997.
It’s a glass half empty situation for Latvia. Prior to the tournament they wouldn’t have been fancied to make the quarter finals but having seemingly done all the hard work, they let the chance slip through their fingers on Sunday. Few would have blamed Belgium if they eased off in this game having already been eliminated but they showed tremendous respect for the tournament with their display. Having fought hard against Lithuania and Serbia, the Lions finally got some reward for their efforts. This was Belgium’s first time in the second round since 1977 and there have been some dark days in between. On Sunday they made good on the development they have shown and spoiled Latvia’s party in the process.