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Erik Murphy: ''You can't ever break a Finn... we have to win both games''
HELSINKI (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers) - There's one quality about Finnish people, national team forward Erik Murphy says, that helps them in difficult times.
"You can't ever break a Finn," he said. "And if they're down, you won't know it."
Murphy, 28, knew all about this before he ever suited up for Finland in international basketball. His mother, Paivi, is Finnish. Like his dad, former pro player Jay Murphy, and his two younger brothers, Alex and Tomas, Paivi was also a player.
"My mom is a pretty tough lady," Murphy said. "You don’t want to mess with Paivi."
"WE EMBRACE THAT UNDERDOG MENTALITY. THE PRESSURE WILL BE ON THEM (RUSSIA). WE JUST HAVE TO GO IN, PLAY OUR GAME AND MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN. IT’LL BE ON THEIR HOME COURT."
Murphy has developed a deeper appreciation for the toughness of the Finns, though, since he began playing for their national team in 2014. He's been in the lineup when they've stood toe to toe with traditional powerhouses.
After a season in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls, he joined Finland for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain and experienced Susijengi mania, with 10,000 Finnish fans traveling to Bilbao to support the team. Following a 114-55 beat-down by the USA in their opening game, Murphy's 12 points and 8 rebounds were essential in their next outing, an 81-76 triumph over Ukraine.
Finland then lost close contests to the Dominican Republic, Turkey and New Zealand and failed to advance. The following year in France, Murphy helped Finland progress from the Group Phase for the third straight FIBA EuroBasket.
He was also with Finland in 2017 when they hosted FIBA EuroBasket Group Phase games in Helsinki where they beat France, Poland, Greece and Iceland while losing to eventual champions Slovenia.
"EVERY TIME WE PLAY AT HOME, OUR FANS ARE UNREAL. IT'S ALWAYS SOLD OUT, THEY'RE ALWAYS GOING CRAZY."
The country was swept up in 'Lauri' mania as the Finns advanced to the knockout stage. Lauri Markkanen, before embarking on his rookie season in the NBA with the Bulls, put on a stunning display in front of the home fans, averaging 19.5 points and 5.7 rebounds.
"That was pretty crazy, pretty wild playing there," Murphy recalled. "Every time we play at home, our fans are unreal. It's always sold out, they're always going crazy. The level of support by the fans is amazing. As the years have gone by, you feel more and more buzz."
He's hoping for more of the same when Finland host France on February 21 in the sixth and final window of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers. The clash will be followed by a showdown with Russia in Perm on February 24.
Only the top three teams in each of the four Second Round groups will clinch spots in the World Cup. Finland (5-5) are currently fourth in Group K behind Russia (6-4), who won the first meeting between the sides, 77-75, after overtime. Russia will also play at Bulgaria on February 21. France and the Czech Republic have already locked up two of the World Cup spots from the group.
"It's going to be tough for sure, but we do have a chance,” Murphy said. "We have to win both games. At home, we always feel good about our chances. Obviously Russia beat us in that tough game.
"We’ll have to beat Russia in Russia. It will be a tough task but we’re capable.”
If the basketball world learned anything about Finland in the last window, it's to never write off the Finns' chances. Following their loss to Russia at the Espoo Arena, the team travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina and fell behind by 21 points. They trailed by 18 at the start of the fourth quarter but pulled off a miracle comeback win, 81-77, by outscoring Bosnia and Herzegovina, 36-14, over the final 10 minutes.
"I'd never played in one like that before," Murphy said. "I was terrible in that game, was in a funk but it doesn't matter because we won. It was wild watching.
"When we got the deficit to between 10 and 14, we had a timeout and (Finland forward) Shawn Huff kept saying how tired they were, that we can run, they had a thin rotation, let's keep pushing. Guys kept playing hard. We definitely made some shots, Sasu hit some shots."
Salin connected on 4 of 6 attempts from behind the arc and finished with a team-high 19 points.
Unreal comeback by @basketfinland 🇫🇮 as they erase a 20-point deficit with a 36-14 last quarter run to stay in the hunt for a spot at the #FIBAWC 2019!— Basketball World Cup (@FIBAWC) December 3, 2018
📝 https://t.co/pBU9D7sTCs pic.twitter.com/P8AeMOO5rr
The World Cup-chasing Finns control their own destiny, though Russia clearly have the inside track to a top-three finish.
"We battled them the whole game (the first time), they’re a tough team and we matched their intensity and toughness," Murphy said. "Down the stretch, they made some shots. We just have to play the same way we did."
As for playing in hostile territory this time, Murphy said: "We embrace that underdog mentality. The pressure will be on them. We just have to go in, play our game and make something happen. It'll be on their home court."
The Finns must first win a tough game against France.
Murphy, now on the books of Fraport Skyliners in Germany, always looks forward to rejoining his Finnish teammates.
"The guys (Finland players) embraced me right away," he said. "It's like a family. It’s a very cohesive unit, that’s how we can win.
"We play for each other and that goes into why we’ve had some success."