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Bjelica, Serbia aim to bounce back: ''We have to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics''
SACRAMENTO (USA) - Nemanja Bjelica has been a linchpin in Serbia's national team since FIBA EuroBasket 2009, when the country made a surprising run to the Final in Katowice, Poland, before falling to Spain.
He's played at four EuroBasket tournaments and three FIBA Basketball World Cups. Yet what the 31-year-old, who is now in the NBA competing with the Sacramento Kings, has never experienced is the Olympic Games. That's something he's eager to change.
"I want to win titles and medals, and for sure I dream about qualifying for Tokyo 2020 and winning a medal next summer," Bjelica said to FIBA.basketball. "The Olympic games are on all of our minds, but first we have to win one of the OQTs. It's going to be a very tough qualifying tournament, but we will be ready to play at our best level. We have to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics."
Bjelica was injured in 2016 and couldn't play for Serbia when they hosted and won a FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade before capturing a silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Games. He had hoped Serbia would take one of Europe's two direct qualifying spots for Tokyo at this summer's World Cup but champions Spain and third-placed France claimed them instead.
Serbia fell to Spain, 81-69, in the Second Round and in the very next game, a Quarter-Final against Argentina, slumped to a 97-87 defeat.
"WE DIDN'T HAVE A GOOD END OF THE WORLD CUP, BUT WE WILL BOUNCE BACK, I AM SURE ABOUT THIS."
"Both of those teams are very good, that's for sure," Bjelica said. "The Spanish national team is very, very solid, and the chemistry and experience they have is amazing.
"They have won so many titles and medals in the last 15 years and the way they play is so fluid, so consistent. It's very impressive. They know how to play, each player has an impact and knows what to do, and when to do it.
"Argentina, they play with a lot of intensity and they put their heart on the court.
Gabriel Deck and Argentina beat Bjelica and Serbia in the Quarter-Finals of the World Cup
"(Luis) Scola is still a very good player, but their unity and fighting spirit is fantastic. We got beat by a team that played very well and was on a mission. (Facundo) Campazzo, (Gabriel) Deck, Scola, (Luca) Vildoza, all those guys are good!
"It's hurts to fail in a competition where we had set the bar very high. It was frustrating because we knew that we had all the ingredients to fight for the world title, but now we have to think about the next step and focus on qualifying for next summer's Olympics."
Serbia will have players in their squad in 2020 that understand what is needed to be successful, members of the squad that won the OQT in 2016. However, the road to the Olympics could be tougher this time around than three years ago, when Serbia beat Puerto Rico twice, Angola and the Czech Republic.
"We have to keep building and thinking ahead, and put our minds on going to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and getting a spot for Tokyo 2020," Bjelica said. "We didn't have a good end of the World Cup, but we will bounce back, I am sure about this."