Back in the World Cup, back in business: Russia's return to world stage a delight for Kirilenko
PERM (Russia) - There may be more in common between the Russia team that qualified for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 and the national side that last represented the country at the tournament in 2010 than one would expect.
With first-hand World Cup experience dating back nine years ago, the trio of Andrey Vorontsevich, Vitaly Fridzon and Dmitry Khvostov played their part in helping the European powerhouse navigate the Qualifiers and return to the world stage.
Another member of the 2010 team, Timofey Mozgov, was also part of Russia's qualifying campaign, while point guard turned assistant coach Sergey Bykov was helping Sergey Bazarevich call the shots on the sidelines.
The qualification-clinching 91-76 defeat of Finland on Sunday came with turbulence but had a smooth landing as a 33-point turnaround saw the home side recover fight back from an 18-point first-half deficit.
Putting their experience to use in the decisive moments of the game, the trio of Vorontsevich, Fridzon and Khvostov had their fingerprints on 23 of the 33 points in the fourth quarter, either scoring or assisting their teammates.
"I'M SURE OUR TEAM IS DEFINITELY AMONG THE 32 BEST TEAMS IN THE WORLD AND I'M HAPPY WE'RE BACK AND HAVE A CHANCE TO FIGHT FOR MEDALS AND A SPOT AT THE 2020 OLYMPICS."
"We're the Russian national team, we love to dig ourselves deep in trouble and then make our way back from there," S Fridzon admitted and was able to laugh off with a smile after the happy ending for Russia. "This is the essence of our life. Today we have shown that we can get out of the most difficult situations."
Having been in the mix for the national team for 14 years, the 1.95m (6ft 5in) veteran guard has a pair of bronze medals from FIBA EuroBasket 2011 and the London 2012 Olympic Games in his collection. However, he has just one World Cup participation under his belt and it ended with a Quarter-Final exit as the Russians were knocked out by the United States 89-79 in Istanbul in 2010.
Vitaly Fridzon in action during the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2010 Quarter-Final against USA
You need go back to 2002 for Russia's previous appearance in FIBA's flagship competition. The team had a then 21-year-old star on the rise, Andrei Kirilenko, who has assumed leadership of the Russian Basketball Federation since finishing his career on the court.
"I've only played at the World Cup once in 2002 and Russia hasn't made it (to the World Cup) since 2010. I'm sure our team is definitely among the 32 best teams in the world and I'm happy we're back and have a chance to fight for medals and a spot at the 2020 Olympics," he noted.
"Today, our team doesn't look like a favorite at the upcoming World Cup, but that's OK. Let it be that way. I recall EuroBasket 2017 and people outside of the team doubted our national team a lot before the tournament, they didn't think we'd make it to the Play-Offs."
Russia reached the Semi-Finals at FIBA EuroBasket 2017
Qualification for the World Cup in China isn't the only thing Kirilenko will be happy about following the end of the Qualifiers, with 26-year-old Dmitrii Kulagin using the stage to emerge as someone someone who will shape the team's future for the years ahead.
"For everyone, including me, I think he has been a breakthrough during this qualifying campaign," Kirilenko said of the 1.97m (6ft 6in) guard who averaged 12.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists after appearing in all 12 contests.
"Andrey Vorontsevich was great [against Finland] and Dmitry Khvostov is the motor of this team. Of course, I'm not surprised with their performances, as I know all of them so well. But I'm just happy that they came to meet the expectations."