A heroic 35-point performance from NBA star Goran Dragic in his final international appearance powered undefeated Slovenia to their first Eurobasket crown on Sunday- defeating Serbia 93-85 to cap a dramatic tournament that caused a seismic shift in the power rankings of European basketball.
Eurobasket 2017 MVP Dragic bowed out of international competition in perfect fashion, with one last memorable effort firing Slovenia – a country of barely two million people – to one of the biggest basketball shocks in recent times.
Despite Dragic’s departure, the emergence of electrifying 18-year-old guard Luka Doncic as one of the world’s top young players means Slovenia aren’t likely to fade from the limelight any time soon.
A pulsating start to Slovenia’s campaign saw the Eastern European outfit join Spain as the only team to emerge with a 100 percent record from the group stages.
A fierce duel between two of Europe’s premium point guards saw Dragic outgun 2016 Euroleague MVP Nando De Colo, as Slovenia charged to an impressive group stage demolition of France.
Former NBA veteran Anthony Randolph’s 21 points saw Slovenia cruise past Ukraine in the last 16 to set up a tantalising clash with Kristaps Porzinigis’ Latvia in the quarter finals. The lengthy New York Knicks forward’s hopes of a medal were dashed with blossoming guard Doncic posting 27 points as Slovenia swept to the semi-finals.
After dismantling Turkey, the heavyweight force of the Gasol brothers coupled with a reinvigorated new Utah Jazz ball-handler Ricky Rubio saw Spain into the final four, cancelling out Dennis Schroder’s 27-point effort haul as Germany fell at the quarter final stage despite beating France in the last 16.
Notable NBA names continued to make their mark on the tournament, with 2014 NBA champion Marco Belinelli’s Italy squaring off with Group D winners Serbia and new Sacramento Kings signing Bogdan Bogdanovic in the quarter finals.
Bodganovic’s 22 points saw off Italy and signalled the star quality of a player set to be unleashed on the NBA, enough to seal a matchup against Eurobasket 2007 winners Russia in the semi-finals.
Looking to reignite his career after a forlorn three-year stint in the NBA, Olympics bronze medallist Alexey Shved’s 33 point explosion couldn’t quite overturn Serbia. Bogdanovic’s 24 points capped a comfortable 79-87 victory as Serbia earned their first Eurobasket finals berth since 2009.
Having clinched three of the past four Eurobasket titles, Spain charged into the semi-finals as firm favourites against the inexperienced Slovenia, only for a shocking and unexpected upset to bring La Roja‘s momentum to a shuddering halt.
A near triple-double from Real Madrid star Doncic brought Spain to their knees, with the young gun’s exploits combining perfectly with Dragic’s experience as Slovenia executed a 20-point demolition of the reigning champions.
A wounded Spain sheepishly claimed bronze against Russia in the third-place game to salvage some pride from a startling defeat. Bronze wasn’t enough however to supress voices suggesting that the Gasol era could soon be ending after a dismal defeat.
Buoyed by their titanic semi-finals win, Slovenia marched into battle against Serbia with a swagger, exploding for 36 points in the second quarter to claim a nine-point advantage at the half in the final.
Unlike Spain’s aging core, a youthful injection of energy from Serbia’s towering power-forward Milan Macvan and 2017 Euroleague champion Bogdanovic limited Slovenia’s scoring to 15 points in the third quarter. Looking to provide the perfect parting gift to his nation, a scorching Dragic continued to keep Slovenia afloat until a potential game-changing injury.
With 4:44 remaining in the third quarter, Slovenian hearts sank as Doncic hobbled from the court in visible distress after suffering an ankle injury, with Serbia smelling blood and sensing an opportunity to capitalise on the 18-year-old’s absence.
A tenacious final quarter performance however from unsung heroes Randolph and Klemen Prepelic saw Slovenia stave off Serbia’s threat to claim their first Eurobasket crown.
Victorious guard Dragic departed with the MVP award in hand, returning to the NBA in pursuit of fulfilling his untapped potential with the Miami Heat. In retiring from the international fray, Dragic leaves youngster Doncic to take the reins with the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China drawing ever closer.
Having asserted themselves on the international stage with a head-turning undefeated run, an impressive World Cup run could see Slovenia considered as major contenders in the battle for medals at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.