Semi-Finals preview: Russia look to spoil Latvian party, France want to dethrone Serbia
RIGA (FIBA U18 European Championship 2018) – The Semi-Finals are set at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018 and they promise to be two intriguing match-ups of teams looking to leave their mark in the history of the tournament.
The first Semi-Final at Arena Riga will see hosts Latvia facing off Russia while France battle Serbia for the second spot in Sunday's Final.
Time: 17:30 CET, Saturday
Main storylines: Latvia came into the tournament having to hear that they should not even be in the event, much less hosting it after their 16th-placed finish at last summer's FIBA U18 European Championship should have sent them to Division B. But the Latvians had committed beforehand to organize the 2018 tournament and were not relegated. And now Latvia want to finish the job. At the other end of the court, Russia feature a number of players who helped the country earn promotion from FIBA U16 European Championship 2016, Division B.
History: Latvia are in their fourth Semi-Finals having grabbed the third spot on the podium in 2007 and 2010 and then taking fourth at home in 2013. Russia only have one U18 medal in the post-Soviet days, the second place in 2010. And their only other top-four showing came in 2012.
Key matchup: This could come down to which of Arturs Kurucs of Latvia or Russia's Nikita Mikhailovskii has a bigger game - and if they can help slow each other down. Another key will be how the smaller Latvians can deal with the Russian big man duo of Alexander Shashkov and Pavel Zakharov.
Fact of the game: Both teams know what it's like playing in tight games - and winning and losing them. Latvia were in three games decided by 6 points or fewer while Russia had three games within 3 points in the end.
They said: "Of course it will be uncomfortable because it's the home team and it will be a full arena for sure. But we are rebels and we don't care about it." - Russia forward Nikita Mikhailovskii.
The 'insider' prediction: Not to be a downer for the tournament hosts, but there has been something special about this Russia team the whole tournament. They have the guard play to keep up with the Latvians and Russia coach Oleg Aksipetrov has been outstanding in getting his men to accept their roles - which also vary from game to game. It seems like Russia's power forwards and centers are all skilled enough to deal with smaller, quicker defenders. The Arena Riga crowd will undoubtedly give Latvia a boost but it might not be enough.
Time: 19:45 CET, Saturday
Main storylines: France's 2000 generation has not collected a medal yet though the two bottom-level 2001-born players Timothe Crusol and Essome Miyem were champions at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2017 and took silver at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2018. Serbia's 2000-born generation was eliminated in the Round of 16 at the U16 European Championship U16.
History: France are four-time U18 European champions from 1992, 2000, 2006 and 2016. A fifth title would pull them even with the Yugoslavia team until 1992 for second place. The Soviet Union is the all-time champion with eight crowns. Serbia are shooting to pull even with France after winning the trophy in 2007, 2009 and last summer under the Serbia flag.
Key match-up: While it will be fascinating to see how much Karlton Dimanche and Joel Ayayi can bottle up Serbia's tour de force Zoran Paunovic, but this will come down to how much France's Mathis Dossou Yovo can do against the Serbian big man duo of Filip Petrusev and Marko Pecarski.
Fact of the game: Serbia are the number one scoring team in the tournament at 99.8 points (compared to 79.2 from France) and are also tops in three-point shooting percentage at 42.3 percent (France hit 36.7 percent of their three-pointers). France for their part are second-worst in free throw percentage at 60.6% - compared to Serbia's third-best 72.1%.
They said: "The Semi-Final is great for us and for me. I was eliminated twice in the Quarter-Finals (at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016 and FIBA U18 European Championship 2017) so it will be a great opportunity for me." - France center Mathis Dossou Yovo
"We played them two times in the training camp so we know them well. We just want to get into our game - with the bigs playing high-low - and that is our advantage and then just play aggressive defense." - Serbia center Filip Petrusev
The 'insider' prediction: France have somehow figured their way through this tournament (two losses in the Group Phase) and reached the Semi-Finals - and with it the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2019. They might be happy with that. Serbia are nowhere near satisfied yet and seem on a mission, especially the Big Three Ps - Paunovic, Pecarski and Petrusev. Gotta go with Serbia.