Russia beats Spain 77-74 in men's Olympic hoops
LONDON — A U.S.-Spain rematch for the Olympic men's basketball gold medal is now in jeopardy.
Thanks to a stunning comeback, it's Russia, not the Spanish, who won Group B and earned the right to avoid the Americans until the final.
Timofey Mozgov made the tiebreaking dunk with 18 seconds left, Vitaliy Fridzon scored 24 points and unbeaten Russia erased an 18-point deficit to pull out a 77-74 victory on Saturday.
"We won the group today," Russia coach David Blatt said. "It's a good feeling. I'd hoped that we would finish in one of the top three spots, to be honest with you, just so that we could avoid the Americans team in the quarters."
The Russians did even better. Any meeting now — assuming the Americans win Group A as expected — wouldn't happen until Aug. 12 in a rematch of the 1972 title game.
"That would be interesting, wouldn't it? It's a long way, though, but again, it'd be interesting," said the American-born Blatt, who angered the Americans two years ago before the teams met in the world basketball championship when he said the Russians' controversial victory in the 1972 game was actually fair.
Fridzon, the hero of Russia's victory over Brazil on Thursday, made the clinching free throws with 4.8 seconds left. Anton Ponkrashov scored 14 points and Mozgov had 12 for the Russians, down 20-2 in the first quarter and still trailing by nine with under 4½ minutes left.
"I'm very happy with our team. We've got character," Russia forward Andrei Kirilenko said. "After falling down in the first quarter by 17 points, it's very tough to get back. But I'm happy with what we did. In those games, if you keep grinding, you keep shaving off points one by one, even against a great team like Spain, they got shaken a little bit — not scared but they started missing shots and making mistakes. We did a good job keeping that aggressiveness."
Pau Gasol scored 20 points for Spain (3-1), but missed the first of two free throws with 5.2 seconds left and the Spaniards trailing by two.
Gasol had 11 points in the first quarter, matching Russia's total in Spain's overpowering start. But the Russians pulled into lead in the third quarter, then had one final rally when they appeared out of it again in the fourth.
The Spaniards, the reigning silver medalists, lost to a team other than the U.S. in the Olympics for the first time since 2000 and now risk having to meet the Americans in the semifinals, pending the result of their final group game Monday against Brazil.
"That lead in the first quarter was not normal, but still we should have been able to hang on to it," Gasol said. "We're leaving with a terrible sensation after this loss and now we have to take care of Brazil to secure the second place in the group."
Russia tied it at 73 on Victor Khryapa's 3-pointer with 1:01 left, then took the lead when Spain somehow lost Mozgov and he was alone under the basket for a dunk. Gasol missed his first free throw with a chance to tie it, and after Fridzon's two free throws, the Spaniards couldn't get a tying 3-point attempt off.
The Russians didn't even need a big game from Kirilenko, who came in second in the tournament with 23.3 points per game but had just eight on 2-of-8 shooting Saturday.
Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez each had 10 for the Spaniards in the first meeting since Russia stunned Spain, then the reigning world champions, 60-59 in the 2007 European championship game.
The Spanish, who barely beat Britain on Thursday, came to play with first place at stake, even using star guard Juan Carlos Navarro for just the second time in the Olympics as he recovers from injuries.
Pau Gasol opened the scoring with a three-point play and Marc converted one that made it 10-0 not even two minutes into the game. A jumper by Ponkrashov got Russia on the board, but Spain came back with 10 straight points, opening a 20-2 lead on a jumper by Fernandez with 4:42 remaining in the first quarter.
Spain led 28-11 after one before Russia finally got going in the second. Kirilenko finally scored with a pair of free throws with 5:48 remaining, kicking off a 12-2 run. Fridzon, who hit the winning 3-pointer with 4 seconds left in a victory over Brazil on Thursday, made four straight baskets to pull the Russians within 38-32 with 2:28 to go, and they were down eight at halftime.
Russia finally surged into the lead with a 9-0 run, Fridzon making consecutive jumpers at the end of it to make it 51-47. The Russians were ahead 56-53 headed to the fourth, but Spain seemed back in control when Marc Gasol's jumper made it 69-60 with 4:40 to play.
Russia, which didn't even qualify for the Olympics until a last-chance qualifying tournament in July, closes pool play Monday against Australia before facing the fourth-place team from Group A — currently Lithuania — in the quarterfinals.
"Everybody said before the Olympic games, 'how are you going to avoid the American team?' Come on, we're not playing them. We're in a different group. We can't prepare for the American team right now," Kirilenko said. "If we play them, we'll get prepared one day before, get a scouting report and we will talk about them. Right now, I think it is senseless. We have a lot teams in front of us and we have to play them first."
Spain will play Brazil, and assuming the teams enter tied, the loser would actually be in better position in the later rounds. The second-place finisher in Group B would have to face the Americans in the semis, while the third-place team would be on the other side of the bracket.
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