SAITAMA (FIBA World Championship) – Spain played their hearts out for injured hero Pau Gasol and captured their first world title with a 70-47 mauling of Greece on Sunday.
Gasol, their superstar power forward who led the team in scoring and rebounding as they went undefeated in the build-up to the FIBA World Championship and the tournament itself, suffered a partial fracture of his fifth metatarsal in his left foot late in Friday’s semi-final win over Argentina and was ruled out of the contest against the Greeks.
The Spanish got inspirational efforts from Jorge Garbajosa, Juan Carlos Navarro, captain Carlos Jimenez, Felipe Reyes and Marc Gasol, Pau's 21-year-old brother, and rolled to victory.
Pau Gasol, because he had been so dominant in the tournament before the injury, was honoured as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after the Spanish team was presented with its gold medals.
“This is fantastic,” said Spain coach Pepu Hernandez.
“We’ve come out with so much emotion on the court and we are world champions.”
Spain's victory in their first final means they finished the summer unbeaten and qualified for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
The defeat ends a terrific run for Greece, who went unbeaten in the very difficult Group C in Hamamatsu.
They also beat the United States 101-95 in their semi-final.
“We had a tough game against the USA so we came into this game with a lot of nerves,” said Greece’s legendary coach Panagiotis Yannakis.
“It's unbelievable to see two European teams in the final. We saw that the level of basketball in Europe is very high.”
Players wore T-shirts which read “Pau tambien juega” (Pau is also playing) as they entered the court before the game.
Felipe Reyes started in Pau Gasol’s place and had 10 points – including six of the team’s first 10 – while coach Pepu Hernandez went to Marc Gasol early and he rewarded him with seven rebounds, two points and excellent defense to neutralise the impact of Greek center Sofoklis Schortsianitis.
Spain's swarming defense in the lane caused problems for the Greeks, who felt pressure on most of their shots. Even when Yannakis' men passed the ball to the perimeter, it seemed Spanish hands were always in their faces.
Feyes’ jump shot put Spain in front at 10-9 and Jose Manuel Calderon and Navarro followed with three-pointers as Herndez’s team built a lead they would never lose.
By the end of the opening quarter, Spain led 18-12, and they delivered a knockout punch at the start of the second.
Navarro started things off with a jumper inside the arc, and Garbajosa buried back-to-back three-pointers before Navarro struck again with a basket to take the lead to 28-12.
Greece’s players and their fans were shell-shocked.
They had trailed Qatar by the same deficit in their first game of Group C and come back to win easily, but Spain are a far better side and they pressed home the advantage.
When Berni Rodriguez nailed a three-pointer – Spain’s sixth of the first half – with just three seconds remaining in the second quarter, Pau Gasol jumped up from his seat on the bench and hopped on one foot to celebrate as they took a 43-23 lead to the changing rooms.
Greece closed to 43-27 on Dimitris Diamantidis’ jumper less than two minutes into the third quarter, but Spain quickly restored their lead and cruised to victory.
Jose Luis Saez, the president of the Spanish federation, said: “This is the greatest basketball lesson I have ever seen.
“It’s a lesson of pride, rage and team effort.
“Everybody thought that without Gasol, we had no chance but Spain has proved it has a team, and Pau Gasol was today the best player on the court.
“I just want the Spanish people to enjoy this moment.”
Garbajosa and Navarro led the scoring parade with 20 points apiece with the former a scintillating six of 11 from the arc and Navarro four of nine.
Jimenez was immense on the boards and defense. He had 11 rebounds and two steals to go with his four points and was a warrior in the paint against Greece’s big men.
Mihalis Kakiouzis had 17 points to pace Greece and Theo Papaloukas added 10.
By Jeff Taylor, FIBA