Balkan de­light as Ser­bia, Slove­nia in Euro fi­nal

Jerusalem Post - - SPORTS -

IS­TAN­BUL (Reuters) – When re­gional ri­vals Ser­bia and Slove­nia clash for the Euro­pean bas­ket­ball ti­tle on Sun­day, any out­come will spell vic­tory for the Balkans, where pas­sion and nat­u­ral tal­ent for the game are con­sid­ered sec­ond to none in Europe.

Both coun­tries emerged from the for­mer Yu­goslavia’s bloody break-up and, hav­ing en­joyed con­trast­ing bas­ket­ball for­tunes so far, they will lock horns for con­ti­nen­tal supremacy and lo­cal brag­ging rights.

Up to 5,000 fans from each coun­try are ex­pected to make the trip to Is­tan­bul while thou­sands more will pack bars at home for what should be grip­ping a fi­nal.

Both teams have knocked out wealth­ier and more re­source­ful ri­vals en route to the show­down, with Slove­nia maul­ing out­go­ing cham­pion Spain 92-72 in a one-sided semi­fi­nal.

Ser­bia, the World and Olympic sil­ver medal­ist which also fin­ished run­ner-up at the 2009 EuroBas­ket, beat Russia 87-79 on Fri­day to reach the fi­nal with a sec­ond-string team miss­ing seven reg­u­lar starters.

Six of them were side­lined with in­juries while Den­ver Nuggets for­ward Nikola Jo­kic stayed away to pur­sue a per­sonal fit­ness regime ahead of the NBA sea­son which starts next month.

Al­though de­pleted, the Ser­bians came through guided by charis­matic coach Alek­san­dar Djord­je­vic, a for­mer tro­phy-laden and high-scor­ing play­maker who used iron-clad de­fense to brush aside his ri­vals in Is­tan­bul.

Djord­je­vic ac­knowl­edged he would have to pro­duce some­thing spe­cial to out­wit com­pa­triot Igor Kokoskov, coach of the Slove­nian side, which won the hearts of neu­tral fans with a free-flow­ing game that put his team into its first fi­nal as an in­de­pen­dent na­tion.

“Slove­nia is the fa­vorites as it has played the best and most en­ter­tain­ing bas­ket­ball through­out the tour­na­ment,” Djord­je­vic told re­porters shortly af­ter Ser­bia forced Russia into sub­mis­sion.

Kokoskov has built his rep­u­ta­tion as an as­sis­tant at six NBA clubs, most re­cently the Utah Jazz where he works in a dual role af­ter tak­ing over as Slove­nia’s head coach in 2016.

“Djord­je­vic said at his press con­fer­ence that we were the fa­vorite, but there is no doubt in my mind he told his play­ers to go out there and tram­ple Slove­nia,” said Kokoskov.

“He’s got much more ex­pe­ri­ence than me as a player and coach but he can’t fool me. We are headed for a bas­ket­ball extravaganza.”

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