LONDON – Reigning European champion Spain overcame a poor start with a second-half comeback to defeat Russia 67-59 on Friday and advance to the Olympic men’s basketball game for the second Games in a row.
The Spaniards, led by 16 points and 12 rebounds from NBA Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol, will play for the gold medal on Sunday against the winner of a later semi-final between defending champion United States and Argentina.
“The final in 2008 was very competitive. We fought hard throughout the game,” Gasol said. “We understand this going to be a difficult game. We’re not going to fight any less. This is a huge opportunity.”
Spain reached the final for the sixth time in the past seven Olympic, world or European championships by rallying from a 31-20 half-time deficit.
“Not a lot of people expected us to come back,” said Jose Calderon, who added 14 points for Spain. “But we did it. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. We’re excited to go to the finals.”
Calderon caught fire from outside and Spain quit trying for a knockout blow and began chipping away at the Russians until they had reversed positions.
“The whole team was too quick shooting. We wanted to win the game in the first minute,” Calderon said. “We tried to win the game too early, go for fast breaks and get crazy.
“The first half we couldn’t make a shot. At half-time we walked about taking it easy. We needed to be patient. My teammates told me to keep shooting so I did and I started hitting some 3-pointers.”
Calderon’s 3-pointer with 7:22 to play gave Spain a 51-49 lead, the first Spanish edge since 4-2 in the opening moments. He added another and Felipe Reyes hit a jumper to cap a 14-1 Spain run for a 60-50 lead with 4:27 to play.
Russia stayed close but Gasol’s fast break slam dunk with 89 seconds remaining boosted Spain’s lead to 66-56 and sealed Russia’s fate.
“We never gave up,” Gasol said. “We were able to overcome a poor first half. In the second half we went out with a lot of confidence playing defensively and started making shots. That’s what it came down to, playing with a rhythm and with some confidence.”
The Russians could only wonder what might have been had they not allowed Spain to open and close the third quarter with 8-2 runs to equalise at 46-46.
“If we don’t play at a high level against a veteran team like that, we will pay for it,” Russia coach David Blatt said. “We had to play as well in the second half as we did in the first and we didn’t.”
Blatt, an American, was not unhappy at the lost prospect of a US-Russia final 40 years after the controversial US-Soviet Union Olympic final, the first US Olympic loss coming after the Soviets had three chances to make the winning shot.
“That matchup wouldn’t have been the USA and USSR,” Blatt said. “It would have been two teams who respect each other, who know each other.”
Blatt said any thoughts of an anniversary should involve the 11 Israelis who were killed by terrorists at the 1972 Olympics.
“(With) the terrorist threat that’s plaguing mankind every day, that should be the subject of any 40th anniversary,” he said.