By Chris Sheridan
KAUNAS, Lithuania — Just when you thought you’ve seen it all …
Well, you’ve never seen it all. That’s something you always have to keep in mind when attending a FIBA tournament.
Greece defeating the United States in the semifinals of the World Championship in Japan in 2006? That was right up there, probably No. 1 in my book.
Russia beating Spain in Madrid for the gold medal at EuroBasket in 2007? Yeah, that’s up there, too. Might have been the closest thing to what I witnessed Wednesday night.
Macedonia, a team that wasn’t even expected to make it out of the first round, pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in the history of EuroBasket by scoring the final six points of the game to defeat the host nation, Lithuania, 67-65 in the quarterfinals of the European championship.
They were led by an American from New Orleans, Bo McCalebb, who was profiled on this site last week when Macedonia was starting to make some noise and turn some heads.
Well, they did something a lot bigger this time, silencing a partisan, raucous crowd of 15,000, and leaving the entire nation of Lithuania shaking their heads in dismay, disgust and disbelief.
It was McCalebb who was the star, coming through in the final minutes like the clutch player he has shown himself to be over and over and over again through the past two seasons in Europe (he led Partizan Belgrade and Montepaschi Siena to the EuroLeague Final Four in each of the past two seasons).
“I’ve been to two Final Fours back to back, now I’ve got a chance to play in the Olympics — something I’ve never ever dreamed about, so this is first in terms of accomplishments,” McCalebb said.
On this night, when the game appeared to be almost out of reach, McCalebb slithered and sliced through three defenders and finished at the basket to cut Lithuania’s lead to 60-57 with 3:02 left.
With the score 65-61, he again got inside the paint and scored in traffic to make it a two-point game. Lithuania missed on its next possession but got the offensive rebound and tossed the ball outside to Sarunas Jasikevicius, who lost his footing and slid out of bounds for a turnover with 33 seconds left.
McCalebb then drove and missed (it appeared he was fouled, but the Macedonians were not getting that call in this country in that type of a situation), but Darius Songaila threw the ball away after grabbing the defensive rebound, and Macedonia had one more chance.
The ball went to McCalebb in the corner, two defenders converged on him, and he rifled a pass to his left and found Vlado Ilievski wide open at the 3-point line.
“Everyone knows I like to penetrate, and I saw two of them tried to stop me from going to the basket, and I faked it and just threw it to him because I knew Vlado was a good 3-point shooter,” McCalebb said.
Bang went the 3-pointer for a 66-65 lead with 11 seconds left, and the sound of 15,000 gasps filled the arena.
And when Simas Jasaitas missed a jumper from the corner off an inbounds play with 2 seconds left, the upset was all but in the books. Ilievski was fouled with 0.5 seconds left, made the first free throw and intentionally missed the second to run out the clock, and the Macedonians rushed en masse to the small section of seats that were reserved for their fans, letting loose a celebration that had to pale in comparison of what was happening on the streets of Skopje, the capital city of the former Yugoslavian republic that celebrated the 20th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence just a week ago.
“We just kept on fighting and kept on fighting. We didn’t give up, made some baskets to keep the game close, got the stop and got the win,” McCalebb said. “This is what everybody dreams of as a basketball player, playing in a game like this on their home court in front of all of their fans. This is what you dream of. You don’t want nothing easy in life.”
So it is Macedonia that advances to the semifinals to play the toughest team in the tournament, Spain, with the winner claiming one of the two Olympic berths up for grabs in this tournament.
And even if the Macedonians lose, they have locked up a spot in next July’s pre-Olympic qualifying tournament which will fill the final three spots in the 12-team field for the 2012 London Games.
“This is the goldest page in our basketball history,” center Predrag Samardziki said.
Macedonia’s other main big man, the multi-tattooed captain Pero Antic, said he will have a medal tattooed on the center of his chest if Macedonia finishes in the top three.
The loss was devastating for the home team and the home nation, with Lithuania now being relegated to the classification round in which it must finish fifth or sixth in order to reach the Olympics pre-qualifier. They have to turn around and play at 3:30 in the afternoon local time Thursday against Slovenia, and a loss would keep them out of the Olympics for the first time since the country broke free of the former Soviet Union in 1990.
“Usually in big losses or big wins you never understand right away what happened. We need some time, and obviously tomorrow, when we play a classification game in the afternoon — while one day ago we were hoping to go for the medal — we will understand,” Jasikevicius said.
Only six teams now have a shot at the championship, a field that will be cut to four after Thursday’s Greece-France and Russia-Serbia quarterfinal games.
The semifinals are Friday night, and plenty of tickets will be available – not exactly what the Lithuanian people or the Lithuania players were expecting.
But again, in FIBA tournaments, the proper thing to expect is the unexpected. This night proved that truism once again.