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Dubljevic, Needham in the clouds after helping fire Montenegro to first World Cup berth
PODGORICA (Montenegro) - Montenegro isn't the biggest country in Europe, but it sure packs a mean punch when it comes to basketball.
A nation with a population of 630,000, for many years Montenegro was a land that contributed players to the great Yugoslavia teams. It has played as an independent national team since 2008 and just over a decade later, after a dramatic European Qualifiers campaign, finds itself among the 32 teams bound for the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
"THE CREDIT GOES TO AMAZING GUYS, COACHES, THE ATMOSPHERE ... I DON'T KNOW IF ANYONE CAN BE PROUDER THAN ME IN THE WHOLE WORLD. THANKS TO THE FANS, THEY ARE THE BEST IN THE WORLD. COME WITH US TO CHINA."
Montenegro clinched their spot in the sixth and final window of the Qualifiers after coming from 19 points down to stun Ukraine in Kiev on Friday, 76-74, and then holding on in a fierce battle with Latvia in Podgorica on Monday.
The team coached by Zvevdan Mitrovic lost 80-74 to Latvia but the result that was good enough to seal a top three place in Second Round Group I behind Spain and Turkey.
Taking part at FIBA EuroBasket in 2011, 2013 and 2017 were tremendous accomplishments for Montenegro, yet making it through a grueling and at the same time exciting World Cup Qualifiers campaign to be a part of the 32-team field in China is exceptional.
"Emotions are high," said veteran center Bojan Dubljevic, the long-time player of Valencia Basket who featured in the FIBA EuroBasket teams of 2013 and 2017.
"The credit goes to amazing guys, coaches, the atmosphere... I don't know if anyone can be prouder than me in the whole world. Thanks to the fans, they are the best in the world. Come with us to China."
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The Montenegro fans were, indeed, spectacular in the European Qualifiers and especially the Second Round when they roared on the national team in difficult moments. Of course it was easy to get behind this team which overcame a 1-3 start in the First Round to finish 7-5.
The games at Ukraine and at home to Latvia will never be forgotten by anyone, nor will the 90-84 victory in Niksic over the Ukrainians on September 17 when Dubljevic and Nikola Ivanovic combined for 56 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists.
Montenegro guard Derek Needham will forever have a place in the hearts of fans after his spellbinding second-half performance in the win at Ukraine.
Needham poured in 23 of his game-high 26 points in the second half of that triumph. A former player for Montenegrin side Mornar Bar, Needham had the thrill of a lifetime by playing in the sixth window games.
"This is historical result," Needham said of Montenegro's first-ever qualification for a World Cup.
"We are celebrating this together. It sounds unbelievable that Montenegro is in a World Cup ... This is amazing. Fans were unbelievable. I wasn’t thinking about anything but the national team."
"We were like family. I gave my best. When we are healthy, we can show how serious we can be. In China we will face the best teams, with the NBA players, but we will fight."
Montenegro will be the country with the smallest population that plays at the World Cup.
The FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Draw, presented by Wanda, takes place in Shenzhen, one of the competition's eight host cities, on Saturday, March 16.