SAITAMA (FIBA World Championship) – Greece fell behind early but a relentless defense led by Theo Papaloukas once again came to the rescue as they beat China 95-64 to advance to the quarter-finals of the FIBA World Championship.
The Far East giants, in confident mood after their stunning last-second victory over Slovenia in Group D to qualify for the last 16, began the game like a runaway train and led 8-0 as Greece missed their first nine shots from the floor.
But the European champions, who still trailed 23-11 early in the second quarter, outscored China 30-13 over the last 9:19 of the first half to lead 41-36 at the break and they stormed to victory over the final 20 minutes.
“Today it was really a frustrating game for us,” said China center Yao Ming. “It always happens to us. (But) We did much better against European teams this summer. It's all about experience.”
China clearly cannot cope with the type off pressure a team like Greece can apply.
The Greeks forced 12 first-half turnovers and 24 for the game. When China did manage to hold onto the ball, they were often forced into taking bad shots.
"In the first minutes, it seemed we had prepared well for the game, but after the first quarter we played very badly on offense against a full-court press, and made one turnover after the other,” said China coach Jonas Kazlauskas.
The introduction of Papaloukas midway through the first quarter, the play of Vasilis Spanoulis and the girth and power of Sofoklis Schortsianitis helped shift the momentum to Greece.
Papaloukas attacked the basket and, alongside Dimitris Diamantidis and Vasilis Spanoulis, pressured the Chinese guards which led to so many mistakes for the Asian champions.
The biggest development, literally, was Schortsianitis, who showed his good performance in the last win Group C win over Turkey was no fluke.
While the 2.10m Lazaros Papadopoulos struggled against the 2.26m Yao, the shorter Schortsianitis (2.06m) is far heavier.
Schortsianitis is so big he makes offensive linemen on NFL teams look small.
When Schortsianitis came off the bench, Yao did not cope well with the different dimensions. In the 14:39 he was on the court, Schortsianitis made all three of his field goal attempts and was four of seven at the free throw line.
Early in the fourth quarter, he was on his way to a rim-rocking dunk when Yao Ming intervened and hit him on the arm, forcing him to shoot free throws.
Almost immediately after, Schortsianitis showed great footwork and went past Yao for a thunderous two-handed jam that must have sent tremors all the way to Athens.
"Our team doesn’t have a lot of experience to play against the best teams in the world,” Yao said. “We did a pretty good job in the first round. But in the second round, it's a different ball game, a different mind set. It’s more physical, body contact. We just need to play more."
Schortsianitis will figure prominently for Greece in the coming days against France in the quarter-finals, and possibly against Team USA if they go on to the semi-finals.
“We were able to recover from a poor start, when we were cold shooting and got better from the second quarter onwards,” Schortsianitis said.
“In the second half, we got our rhythm going and were able to extend our lead and get a great win.”
Papaloukas had 19 points for Greece in the mauling. For China, Yao was held to just 10 points and eight rebounds.
"The team that makes more mistakes will lose the game, and we made fewer mistakes,” said Greece coach Panagiotis Yannakis.
“This was the key for us, because we knew against China we need to be more careful, because if Yao can get the ball, he can score very easily.
“So we needed to play basketball on the floor.”
By Jeff Taylor