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Poland celebrate first World Cup appearance since 1967
WARSAW (Poland) - Polish basketball waited a very long time for a big result to spark the game in the country. That result came when the national team, in the last window of the European Qualifiers, clinched a spot in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China.
Poland won, 77-69, at Croatia on Friday to seal a place in the 32-team field in the Far East.
"THE WORLD CUP MIGHT BE A ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME EXPERIENCE. I BELIEVE FOR US, THE TEAM, THE FEDERATION, IT'S THE BIGGEST THING WE'VE EVER BEEN A PART OF."
Poland will play at the World Cup for the first time since 1967.
"It's history for us," Poland star Mateusz Ponitka said. "For the coach, it's history. For everybody, it's history. It’s really a big deal here in Poland right now. It's a great feeling."
Fans were reminded of just how historical the qualification was at half-time of Poland's 85-76 victory over the Netherlands on Monday in their final game of the Qualifiers, when Andrzej Chmarzynski, Mieczysław Lopatka and Wlodzimierz Trams - three members of the 1967 team that came in fifth at the World Cup in Montevideo, Uruguay - were honored.
Uczestnicy MŚ w 1967 roku: Andrzej Chmarzyński, Mieczysław Łopatka i Włodzimierz Trams w przerwie meczu Polska - Holandia otrzymali pamiątkowe koszulki#KoszKadra #DawajPolska— KoszKadra (@KoszKadra) 25 lutego 2019
fot. Andrzej Romański
Więcej ➡ https://t.co/Ax3Uv1jq9Y pic.twitter.com/fRCqnMYNtf
The recognition of three legends stirred the emotions.
"I'm really proud they honored three players from the 1967 team," Poland coach Mike Taylor said. "In 2015, I was able to meet the coach of that team, Witold Zagorski, in our tournament in Vienna, Austria. There was a real connection."
So how big of a deal is it that Poland will be in China?
Since taking part in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Poland's best finish at a FIBA EuroBasket was seventh, a result achieved at the 1981, 1987, 1991 and 1997 and 2009 editions of the tournament, the last of which they played on home soil.
Taylor, who took over as Poland coach after FIBA EuroBasket 2013, said: “Behind the scenes, we've had five years of really good results, really good success for Polish basketball. At EuroBasket 2017, we fell short of our expectations and we didn't advance out of the group, but the players supported me and really helped me get through the tough time.
"We got things back on track in the World Cup Qualifiers. Credit goes to them. We were sitting at 3-4 in the Qualifications and just came together and won five straight and put ourselves in a great position."
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Experienced players like Ponitka and Adam Waczynski made the difference in the Qualifiers, which was evident after the team struck back from 14-0 deficit at Croatia to win.
"I've played many games in my life with many different scenarios so, when it starts like this, you just have to stay calm because if you don't and start to get crazy and do some out-of-the-system things, then we have a problem because the lead might get bigger," Ponitka said.
"I knew that step by step we could come back and then try to break the game. When we got to the end of first quarter, it was six or eight points, I was really calm. We were back. I was just waiting for this one moment when we could break them."
That moment came late in the fourth quarter when the game was tied at 67-67. Ponitka, who led Poland with 20 points, made a pair of free-throws that put them in front and they never trailed again. He later added two more before also drilling a jump shot.
Taylor says there was a formula needed for success in the Qualifiers.
"THE BIGGEST THING WAS, WHEN WE BROUGHT IN PLAYERS WHO REALLY WANTED TO BE THERE, YOU COULD VISIBLY SEE IT WAS A BIG THING FOR THEM TO BE WITH THE NATIONAL TEAM AND THINGS FELL INTO PLACE."
"To me, the trick is you build your core, you rely on the core being together for a long time and then every single window doing the best job you can with the roster," he said.
"After EuroBasket 2017, we moved away from certain players and focused on other guys. The biggest thing was that when we brought players into the team who really wanted to be there, you could visibly see it was a big thing for them to be with the national team and things fell into place.
"We lost to Lithuania (79-61 on June 28) at home but you could see the team being competitive, really being together. I think the turning point for us was beating Croatia at home (79-74 on September 17) with all their NBA players. That gave us confidence. In the next window, we played really well in Den Bosch (beating Netherlands, 105-78), then came back home and beat Italy (94-78). That set us up for this window to just finish the job."
And now the World Cup.
“I believe the organization will be on the highest possible level," said Ponitka, who played his 100th game for Poland on February 25 against the Netherlands.
Znacie podobne zdjęcie? 😉— KoszKadra (@KoszKadra) 25 lutego 2019
Mateusz Ponitka @1Ponitka0 zagra dzisiaj mecz nr 100 w #KoszKadra!
Początek o godz. 20:30. Transmisja w TVP 1 i TVP Sport #DawajPolska
fot. Andrzej Romański pic.twitter.com/CwUKtwfO5h
"There will be many good teams and players. For us, only the second Polish national team to advance to the World Cup, it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience playing people we've mostly watched on TV like the USA if we somehow get them in the group," he said.
"I believe for us, the team, the federation, it’s the biggest thing we've ever been a part of. We just have to enjoy this."