The day Spain's Navarro roared against North Macedonia
VALENCIA (Jeff Taylor's Eurovision) - FIBA EuroBasket 2011 is one of the most important editions in the competition's history. For the first time, the tournament field had 24 countries and not 16, as was the case from 1997 to 2009.
The expanded tournament field in 2011 saw Finland and Belgium make long-awaited returns to European basketball's flagship event and also ushered in a new era for Georgia and Montenegro, who featured at the extravaganza for the first time as independent countries.
The tournament also witnessed the dream run of North Macedonia, which included a shock win over hosts Lithuania in the last eight, and the remarkable overall performance of Juan Carlos Navarro of champions Spain.
Navarro had some huge efforts in his legendary national team career, including as far back as the 1999 FIBA World Cup for Junior Men in Portugal when he poured in 25 points in a 94-87 Final triumph over the United States in the Final.
Most will agree his 20-point showing in the 70-47 title game victory over Greece at the FIBA Basketball World Cup Final in Japan was among his most significant displays, especially with teammate Pau Gasol unable to play due to injury, But Navarro's scoring eruption against North Macedonia in the Semi-Finals of EuroBasket 2011 was his greatest performance in a Spain jersey.
“NAVARRO IS A BASKETBALL ARTIST, A PERSON WHO DESERVES ALL THE SUCCESS HE HAS. HE'S THE ONLY PLAYER IN MY LIFE THAT I'VE TOLD HE HAS THE FREEDOM TO TAKE A SHOT WHENEVER HE FEELS INSPIRED.”
Spain went into the championship looking for a second EuroBasket crown in a row, and the second in their history, after winning two years earlier in Poland.
Coached once against by Sergio Scariolo, Spain were among the pre-tournament favorites, yet a 65-57 defeat to Turkey in their fifth game left no doubt that they could be beaten.
Spain boasted a star-studded lineup that included Pau and Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Serge Ibaka, Sergio Llull, Felipe Reyes and an emerging Ricky Rubio, yet the competition was stiff and especially in the Semi-Finals, when they had to face the red-hot North Macedonians, who looked as if they might be destined for glory.
After their 67-65 upset of Lithuania, North Macedonia fans back home poured into the streets of Skopje to celebrate. Vlado Ilievski, Pero Antic, Lester "Bo" McCalebb and the rest of the squad were confident and two wins away from a miracle EuroBasket success.
Navarro, aka La Bomba, drilled five three-pointers and had 35 points against North Macedonia
However, Spain in the last four was their biggest test.
The favorites jumped out to a 26-18 advantage at the end of the first quarter yet North Macedonia maintained their poise and charged back to lead, 43-42, late in the second quarter. After a Pau Gasol basket put Spain back in front, the team from the Balkans answered with a reverse layup by McCalebb for a 45-44 lead at half-time.
With their giant North Macedonia flag unfurled in the stands, the fans from North Macedonia dreamed again of an amazing victory.
Navarro, though, turned into a conquistador.
Having hit eight of his 12 three-pointers in the previous two games, and having also scored 26 points in a Quarter-Final rout of Slovenia, Navarro had his finest hour.
After the teams traded baskets to begin the third quarter, Navarro gracefully dribbled to the basket, looked to his left as if he might pass and scored with a runner for a 48-47 Spanish advantage. McCaleb answered with a free-throw line jumper and then Antic dunked, yet Navarro replied from 15 feet on the right baseline to cut Spain's deficit to one.
Not long after, La Bomba caught a pass and drilled another shot from mid-range to make it 52-52. As the third quarter approached the 5:00 mark, Navarro scored down low to increase his tally to 18 points in the game, only for McCalebb to knot the contest with another free-throw line jumper.
The high-scoring guard of Spain then left no doubt about which team would win. Following a Marc Gasol basket that put the defending champions back in front, 60-58, Navarro struck with a long three-pointer.
Then with Spain on top 65-60 and with the shot-clock about to expire, Navarro found enough space to go off one foot and bury a three-pointer.
North Macedonia gave Spain a fright in the Semi-Final
He looked up at the crowd and roared, with clenched fists, while the North Macedonia coach Marin Dokuzovski shuddered.
The North Macedonians battled bravely the rest of the way, but Navarro, who added another three-ball and had 19 of his game-high 35 points in the quarter (Navarro actually outscored the opposition by two points in the frame), gave his team so much momentum that they not only had a comfortable lead the rest of the way, but also stormed to victory in the Final over France, when he scored 27 in a 98-85 Spanish triumph.
After the win over North Macedonia, Scariolo marveled at Navarro's excellence.
"Navarro is a basketball artist," he said, "a person who deserves all the success he has. He's the only player in my life that I've told he has the freedom to take a shot whenever he feels inspired."
Navarro, after his remarkable three-game run, was named EuroBasket 2011 MVP.
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