Goran Dragic said he had dreamt a thousand times of nights like this but, after an epic battle, he need dream no more as Slovenia overcame Serbia to win EuroBasket2017. Emmet Ryan looks back on a thrilling final where the Dragon spurred his team on and the less heralded players came big when it mattered
It’s easy to play lights out in an empty gym. Now Slovenia and Serbia, for only the second time for each in this tournament, had to do it in front of a loud and intense crowd. The greatest prize in European basketball awaited the winner and the Slovenian fans were here in large numbers. Having come by plane, bus, and car, they wanted to see their men make history. Serbia’s turnout was hardly shabby but this was East Ljubljana as far as crowds went. For the first time in the knockout stages, save for Turkey’s brief appearance, this arena was lit.
Dragic, Doncic, Bogdanovic, Marjanovic, one of these men would be the hero on a special night for the sport. Then there was Sasa Djordjevic, a man who had his fill of silver in recent years but sought to finally taste gold as a coach.
The faint Serbia chant was being drowned out by whistles as the Slovenian fans made the players know who the de facto home team was. The opening possessions felt like watching a game in slow motion as both sides adapted to the occasion.
Milan Macvan’s handle was ropey. The Serbia captain was juggling easy passes and struggling to offload the ball. Stefan Jovic put him in for a soft finish to calm his nerves. It took almost 4 minutes for the first foul to be called, Ognjen Kuzmic drew it and he immediately sat for Boban Marjanovic. The biggest question ahead of this game was how Slovenia would handle the giant. Ziga Dimec felt the pressure right away as he got a whole lof of Boban in his face on consecutive possessions.
Goran Dragic had been running into red walls early in this but eventually got through for a score midway through the opening frame before dancing around Marjanovich for another. Luka Doncic faked out Boban on Slovenia’s next possession but Boban was still causing issues. Dimec picked up his second on the giant and it was the third foul drawn by Marjanovich in less than three minutes on the floor.
The holes were opening up. Bogdan Bogdanovic glided through to give Serbia the first lead of note in the game as Igor Kokoskov called in his troops. Switching from Gasper Vidmar to Dimec after Kuzmic sat wasn’t sufficient. Boban had his number.
Klemen Prepelic propelled a recovery from Slovenia before Marjanovic made a really dumb foul on Doncic. A slap on the arm that was nowhere near the ball but it seemed to rattle Slovenia briefly. Goran ensured it was only a short stutter. At the end of the first quarter, despite looking the stronger side out there, Serbia only led 22-20.
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Kuzmic was back and he was bossing Vidmar. The Slovenian big had been getting nothing on the inside against the Real Madrid man and Kuzmic had even been getting some work done offensively. Anthony Randolph was alongside Vidmar now however to give Serbia more to think about on the inside and Doncic came in to give Slovenia a, relatively, big line-up. The switches brought power but maintained the pace and a steal by Randolph put in Dragic to force Djordjevic to call in his side early in the second.
Bogdan started getting smart. After calling his own number on a three, he drew three fouls in quick succession from Slovenia. Dimec had to sit and now Vidmar was matching up with Boban. This should have posed some questions to the Slovenian offence instead Luka went DUNKIC. Dragic follwed up with a jumper and the rhythm belonged to Slovenia who had taken their first lead of note.
Every Serbian miss led to a Dragic transition and, usually, a desperate foul. The MVP chants rang out as he stepped to the line to put Slovenia up 10. Prepelic nailed his third deep ball of the night and Serbia were under pressure.
Macvan, having recovered from his early jitters, was playing the captain’s role and grinding insite to stop this getting out of hand. Dragic sitting did even more for Serbia as they found a pace they could live with.
Doncic was starting to force it a little. The physical attention he was getting from Serbia was getting under his skin but he was also using it to drive him forward. If Serbia wanted to hit him hard, he was going to make them pay on both ends.
Dragic came back in to close the half. A drive inside and then a contested three, and another, he was getting buckets at his leisure. He still wasn’t done. A long pull back jumper to make it 26 points in the half, 20 of his side’s 36 in the quarter, as Slovenia took a 56-47 lead into the break.
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Dragic went deep on the buzzer to start the second half with a bang. A steal and an offensive board quickly followed before Serbia even had a look at the other end. Djordjevic didn’t wait, the changes were immediate and Serbia settled as Vasilje Micic and Boban took the floor.
The heavy pressure on Doncic was making the kid get lost in traffic. One half of Slovenia’s big two was being limited but Dragic was the much bigger problem. Another jumper over Boban to make it a double digit lead again.
Vladimir Stimac, a man who hadn’t been a factor in the knockout rounds came in to try and give Serbia more speed and bother Dimec. As Dragic sat and Doncic hobbled off court after a rough fall, Serbia sensed their chance.
No Doncic, no Dragic, and no-one was setting the rhythm for Slovenia. Bogdan glided in to chop away again. With the game getting far too close for Kokoskov’s liking, Goran returned to the fray.
Randolph got the message, with a pair of big blocks as Slovenia rallied with the Dragon back on the floor. With 10 minutes played the lead had been halved but Slovenia were still in front, 71-67.
One quarter to decide the destiny of the Nikolai Semashko trophy. Dragic got boxed up on the first possession and subbed out. There was no point draining him yet. Now it was a chance for Slovenia’s other guys to give their guy a real rest. Jaka Blazic and Aleksej Nikolcic put some more room between the sides but Dragic was back within 2 minutes.
The rhythm didn’t return with him as Macvan and Bogdanovic came roaring back for Serbia. With Doncic gone the defence was able to give Dragic the heavy treatment now. Slovenia were slowing down and Serbia were racing after offenisve boards. Kokoskov had to call in his side as the lead dropped to just a point. Barely half a quarter to go and Slovenia were blinking.
Macvan gave Serbia their first lead in forever. Spain had never got this close after Slovenia’s charge. Now we would see whether the side that had gone from dark horses to favourites could live with the pressure.
Bogdan glided in again. The MVP chants rang out again but this time from the Serbian section. Randolph squared things from the line. It was all up for grabs. Kuzmic with a pair of duds from the line. Prepelic with the jumper. The lead was back, tiny as it was, but any was a boost to Slovenia’s confidence at this stage.
Vlatko Cancar with the offensive board out of nowhere. Randolph drove, scored, and drew the foul. Dragic had been sitting a couple of minutes but Slovenia were still surviving.
Vidmar with the high risk but successful block on Bogdan. Prepelic drew a three shot foul, making two, and with barely a minute to play it was Slovenia’s to lose. Serbia had given them the fright, tested their mettle like none before them in this tournament, but here they stood on the back on their unheralded other guys.
The Slovenian bench were on their feet. Their two brightest stars witnesses, having given so much in this game, as they watched their team mates close out a cracking game. Slovenia had ridden the Dragon to get this shot and now they had made history. Slovenia, a basketball mad nation of 2 million people, so used to dreaming of this kind of glory but never seeing such days had achieved the unthinkable. Champions of EuroBasket 2017.
Afterwards the Slovenian roster didn’t know how to react. The first 9-0 record at EuroBasket since 1995, the first unbeatean champions since 2003, but, most importantly, their first ever major medal was gold. We’ll leave the last word to their captain fantastic. Sometimes fairytales do come true.
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