Five magic moments from FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers
MUNICH (Germany) - The FIBA EuroBasket 2025 Qualifiers will soon begin and new memories will be made, with 32 nations eyeing a spot in the next edition of the flagship competition in Cyprus, Finland, Poland and Latvia.
But before we start writing a new chapter in the long history of the competition, let's go back and look at some of the magical moments from the last EuroBasket qualifying campaign.
Kalnietis saves Lithuania from despair against Denmark
You may not remember it this way, but Lithuania were on the brink of not even reaching FIBA EuroBasket 2022.
They came into the final games of the Qualifiers in Group C knowing a loss to Denmark would keep them out of the Final Round of the competition for the first time since 1993; and Denmark would reach the EuroBasket for the first time since 1955. And if you think that's a game Lithuania should be winning easily, keep in mind the Danes had already shocked Lithuania with an 80-76 victory in the first game.
Denmark were a fingertip away from an impressive double. Trailing 77-76 with the final possession in the second meeting between the sides, veteran leader Adama Darboe drove right for a chance to send the Danes ahead, but Mantas Kalnietis kept up with him and rose to block Darboe's layup attempt to deny the visitors a historic achievement.
There were many big plays in Kalnietis' illustrious international career, but none may have as significant as the one in the do-or-die game against Denmark, which saved the day and allowed Lithuania fan base breathed a massive collective sigh of relief.
The Lithuanian point guard had a slightly different recollection of the play after some time: "The game ended and you realized it's all good - you've got the win. But later I saw some articles later along the lines of me saving the day and I thought to myself: "Guys, you actually don't have it right" - I actually messed up the play, as he beat me off the dribble."
Bulgaria return to EuroBasket, wave goodbye to Latvia
The battles between Bulgaria and Latvia deserve a separate mention.
Bulgaria had not tasted the EuroBasket since 2011 but pulled off one of the surprises of the Qualifiers by ending that streak at the cost of Latvia missing out on the Final Round after nine straight appearances. But the 'how it happened' in this story is perhaps even more impressive than the actual fact.
Rewind to the first meeting between the sides in Botevgrad, a 110-104 double-overtime with more twists and turns than an Alpine climb.
If you've got five minutes, the highlights are well worth it.
And if you don't have five minutes, you just missed about half a dozen could-have-been game-winners, including a crazy and-one on the three by Dee Bost to actually seal the deal for Bulgaria.
This story does have a Part 2, with Bulgaria administering the kiss of death to Latvia, when they headed to Riga and held the hosts to just six points in the fourth quarter of a 66-65 win in the penultimate game of Group H.
After missing out on FIBA EuroBasket 2022 in such painful circumstances, Latvia made sure not to repeat the same mistakes again with much more convincing displays on the road to the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023. Having needed to go through the Pre-Qualifiers, they went on to win 11 of 12 games in the World Cup Qualifiers to reach their very first World Cup, where they eventually would finish fifth overall.
Lundberg drops Qualifiers-high 38 on Czechs
Another magical Danish moment? Yes, that's right!
One of the most dominant performances during the last Qualifiers came from Iffe Lundberg as the star guard carried Denmark past Czechia 91-90 as part of his country's near historic campaign. Two days after scoring 28 points in Denmark's shocking 80-76 win over Lithuania in a window bubble in Vilnius, Lithuania, Lundberg rattled in a 2022 Qualifiers-high 38 points to defeat the Czechs. He drained seven three-pointers in the game - scoring 11 points in the final six minutes including the team's final nine points.
While Lundberg's 38 points was the most scored in the 2022 Qualifiers, his 7 three-pointers were not. The best mark in that category went to AJ Slaughter of Poland as he drained 8 triples in scoring 29 points in a 75-71 loss to Israel. Meanwhile, the top assist performance of the campaign went to Sten Sokk of Estonia who dished out 14 assists in a 105-101 overtime win over Italy. Sokk did not make a field goal attempt and converted three free throws for his 3 points.
Europe, meet Alperen Sengun
Who is this young kid putting up big numbers and will he ever stop?
The answers to the questions are as follows: that's Alperen Sengun; and he's never really stopped.
One of the highlights of the previous Qualifiers cycle was the rise of Turkiye talent Alperen Sengun. The big man shined in the summer of 2019 in helping Turkiye take second place at the FIBA U18 EuroBasket 2019, being named to the All-Star Five despite being a year younger.
In late 2020, Sengun was just four months removed from his 18th birthday but was already dominating in the Turkish league after moving in the summer from Bandirma - where he played in the Basketball Champions League - to Besiktas.
Sengun made his senior national team debut in the November 2020 window in Istanbul, picking up 9 points, 8 rebounds and 2 steals against Croatia. Two days later he collected 9 points and 4 rebounds versus Netherlands.
Then came the February 2021 window in Istanbul and after three months of continued dominance in the Turkish league - as well as averaging 23.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.0 blocks in three FIBA Europe Cup games - it was back to the national team for Sengun. And he scored 24 points to go with 12 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals against Sweden. Sengun finished the qualifying campaign with 6 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks against Croatia.
Sengun a few months later would star for Turkey at the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament Victoria, Canada - in the summer before his NBA rookie season. And the rest is history.
Swiss shock Serbia on Belgrade-born Mladjan game-winner
We already mentioned Denmark beating Lithuania as one of the biggest upsets of the qualifying campaign. But perhaps the biggest surprise came in Espoo, Finland in November 2020 when Switzerland shocked Serbia 92-90, winning the game on a last second shot by the Belgrade-born Dusan Mladjan.
It was actually the second upset loss for Serbia as the Igor Kokoskov-led Balkan side lost a 14-point lead in falling 94-90 to Georgia, when Thad McFadden scored 33 points and Giorgi Shermadini had 23 points and 11 rebounds.
Among the other surprises over the course of the qualifying campaign were Hungary defeating then reigning EuroBasket champions Slovenia 77-75 on the first game day; Israel beating Spain 95-87 in Valencia as well as Great Britain rolling past France 94-73 on the final game day in the Podgorica window.