In what was a crucial game for both team’s hopes of Eurobasket qualification Iceland prevailed 69-71 in a closely run affair at the Copper Box. With GB leading by ten at half time it was a second half collapse that cost them a win that would’ve rekindled any hopes of Eurobasket qualification, while Iceland’s victory all but guarantees them a spot in next summer’s tournament.
The game was ultimately decided by two aspects, Iceland’s rebounding on both ends of the court, and the effort on both ends of the floor of the Icelandic guards, specifically Jon Arnor Stefansson and Hordur Viljhalmsson against an inexperienced GB back court.
Beginning with the guard play; Devon van Oostrum demonstrated some flashes of his brilliance in the first half, with a slick behind the back assist in transition highlighting what was probably his best half of basketball this summer. But once again for van Oostrum it seemed like it was style over substance as he struggled as he was often the only ball-handler and playmaker on court. His 5 assists were matched by 5 turnovers along with a 0/6 shooting night, as the Icelandic defenders contently dared van Oostrum to shoot, and with their improved rebounding in the second half the transition opportunities died out and van Oostrum struggled.
Conversely after a first half which was described as “flat” by Jon Arnor Stefansson the Icelandic guards got their swagger back on the defensive end. The tempo was dictated by both Martin Hermannsson and Hordur Vilhjalmsson who both fought tooth and nail while switching onto post players with 15cm in height on them. While Hermannsson didn’t quite replicate his superb performance of last week it was his youthful swagger that was prominent over van Oostrum’s as his aggression along with the heady, smart defence of Vilhjalmsson that put pay the GB halftime lead.
While it was 6’9” point guard Pavel Ermolinkij that marshalled the Icelandic offence in Reykjavik he disappointed this week, as the returning Jon Arne Stefansson and the resurgent Hordur Vilhjelmsson starred for Iceland.
Stefansson was talismanic; with his shooting ability requiring constant attention from Britain, constantly wriggling free on the perimeter through pin downs and back cuts he always found his way to space. When he did take the ball on the perimeter he almost always made the right decision, whether it was exploiting a mismatch against the smaller Devan Bailey in the post; or slipping a deft pass down to Hlynur Baeringsson on a pick and roll as his ability to score off the dribble froze GB’s Dan Clark on the perimeter.
Where Stefansson was effervescent off the ball; Hordur Vilhjelmsson was the cool head running the offence patiently, never rushing and never forcing a play. When everything broke down it was Vilhjlemsson cooly pulling the ball out and resetting as Iceland came back in the second half. When he did find himself having to isolate he did so smartly using his size over Devan Bailey to scoop past for an underhand layup in the second half and when he played off ball he adequately spaced the floor, sinking three of his five three point shots.
Pavel Ermolinskij may not have been the creative force he was in Reykjavik but he was an underrated influence in the attribute that won Iceland the game: rebounding. Ermolinskij grabbed ten rebounds, all of them defensive and along with Hlynur Baeringsson and Haukur Palsson limited Great Britain’s offensive rebounding despite their size advantage.
Baeringsson on the offensive glass was an enigma; grabbing seven of his own, as he read the ball off the rim and timed his jumps to perfection on his way to seven offensive boards. Defensively too he was matched up with players far taller than him yet limited Dan Clark and Kieron Achara admirably as he fronted them aggressively and denied the ball. After the game teammate Jon Arnor Stefansson was full of praise for his captain “Hlynur is the biggest big man in the world. He’s competing against bigger guys every night, and he’s the best big man we have ever had and one of the strongest I’ve ever seen.”
GB’s first half was promising as they smartly attacked the fronting Icelandic defence, and with the help unable to cover across quickly, Britain’s penetrating guards were able to dump off down to the big men for some easy shots at the rim. When this couldn’t happen GB actually moved the ball well for perhaps the first time this summer, as they were able to isolate Dan Clark, Drew Sullivan and Kieron Achara on the right block who knocked down some smooth mid post jumpers and hook shots to avoid the Icelandic help.
After the interval, Iceland’s coach Craig Pedersen had made adjustments that Joe Prunty did not keep up with. Upping the aggressiveness not only on switches and fronting the post but also the baseline help on post ups, which started to come before the catch. As GB’s ball movement stagnated the Icelanders were able to ably recover to the weakside, and when the ball did move the wrong pass was made, or came too late to find an open man.
It was a great victory for an obviously tight knit Icelandic team. Their closeness and knowledge of one another was embodied by Helgi Mar Magnusson, a role playing forward who stepped in as a situational player at the end of the third quarter to knock down a three that gave Iceland the lead again at 56-54 after Hordur Vilhjalmsson found him open on a pick and pop. The next time Magnusson saw time was when Baeringsson went down with an injury towards the end of the game in crunch time. Magnusson stepped up to play the last two minutes and played a hand in the play that won Iceland the game, as he found Stefansson wide open in the corner as the shot clock expired to give Iceland a 71-67 lead.
After the game Jon Arnor Stefansson and Hordur Vilhjalmsson spoke about how important the victory and potential Eurobasket qualification is for Iceland and Icelandic basketball
Stefansson: “You wouldn’t believe what it would mean for basketball in Iceland, it’s indescribable, it’s just a bunch of guys who are all very close, like you know it’s a very small country, we’ve been fighting together for a long time, and this is my 14th year with the national team. Many others have been playing for a long time, and we never dreamed of going to Eurobasket and playing on the big stage. This means so much for us and so much for the organisation and federation.”
Vilhjalmsson: “This means everything for us because we’ve put in a lot of work in the last few years and it’s a lot of the same guys carried through. To achieve a goal that even we didn’t think was possible at times is unbelievable.”
Meanwhile Coach Joe Prunty lamented his team’s poor second half: “We played a great first half and I’m proud of the way we battled, though at the start of the third we gave up a few too many offensive rebounds where we did a decent job of playing solid defence but then that second chance hurt us offensively and then in the fourth we just rushed a few shots and had a few too many turnovers, but overall I was proud of the way we battled.”