Tiny nation, big heart: Montenegro hold off Latvia to qualify for World Cup
PODGORICA (Montenegro) - It was inevitable history was going to be made in Podgorica one way or another, but it was the hosts, Montenegro, who seized the opportunity to book the last remaining European spot in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019.
Holding an 8-point cushion from the first meeting in Riga, the hosts were defeated 80-74 at the Sports Center Moraca but did enough to secure their first-ever World Cup appearance and subsequently become the smallest nation to be represented in the event with a population of just over 600,000.
Turning point: A roller coaster from tip-off to finish, the game went right down to the wire with Dairis Bertans having a chance to tip the scales in Latvia's favor with a buzzer-beating three-pointer to send the Baltic side to China instead. However, his shot was off target, as he finished 0-of-9 from the floor on the night.
Game hero: A 22-point effort by Derek Needham went a long way for Montenegro, but there may not have been a bigger play all night long than Aleksa Popovic taking Martins Meiers for a dance on a switch, stepping back and draining a three-point to bring Montenegro within 75-71 with 30.1 seconds on the clock.
Stats don't lie: The game was decided on the glass, with Montenegro outrebounding Latvia 42-27 and turning 18 offensive rebounds into 17 second chance points.
Bottom line: The 84-75 road victory over Latvia in November proved to be enough for Montenegro to advance, with Zvezdan Mitrovic's side claiming the head-to-head tie-breaker to finish ahead of Latvia in the Group I table despite sharing an identical 7-5 record.
They said: "It was a very difficult game. We knew that this team is different from the previous game with five players who never played in the Qualifiers before. So we knew it would be a very difficult game because those players are great shooters and it isn't easy to guard them. Somehow we made it come true and we did something historically great for basketball and sport in Montenegro." - Montenegro forward Blagota Sekulic
"It's difficult to find the words to explain how I feel tonight, especially because I remember very well when we started a year ago without any idea, but really any idea at all of going to the World Cup. We competed to get to the Second Round and it was our goal. Tonight I am extremely happy because all of these guys who played, they all deserve this. Like Blagota (Sekulic) kept saying, we are really, really, extremely happy. And for our country, you saw the atmosphere, it was really amazing tonight. Congratulations to everybody." - Montenegro coach Zvezdan Mitrovic
"First of all I would like to congratulate Montenegro for qualifying to the World Cup. Good luck to them there. Talking about today's game, the main reason we didn't get the result we wanted is defensive rebounding. We allowed too many offensive rebounds. We allowed too many second chance points and in the second half we had a lot of plays one on one where we didn't execute defensively as necessary. Obviously in the last minute of the game, our team's offense was different because of the injury to our point guard Janis Strelnieks. As you all could see, the Montenegro team couldn't stop him." - Latvia coach Arnis Vecvagars