LJUBLJANA, (Reuters) – An inspired France won their maiden basketball title in any major competition after overwhelming Lithuania 80-66 in an enthralling European championship final on Sunday.
Thriving on long-range shooting and effervescent performances by the tournament’s most valuable player Tony Parker, Portland Trailblazers guard Nicolas Batum and forward Boris Diaw, the French finally touched the pinnacle after finishing as runners-up in 1949 and 2011.
“It’s very emotional as I’ve been chasing this for 10 years,” 31-year old Parker, who marshalled his team with the authority of a treble NBA champion, told the France 2 television channel.
“We have made history because the first title is always the most beautiful. I received so many messages of support this morning and I didn’t want to disappoint people. The great (semi-final) victory over Spain boosted our confidence for this match.”
Although the San Antonio Spurs playmaker at times struggled with mid-range jump shots, he carved out the supply routes with incisive passing, while Batum nailed one perimeter shot after another and forward Boris Diaw did the damage in the paint on both ends of the court.
A fired-up Batum, who endured a patchy tournament and averaged only 11 points per game up to the final, found his range and sank 17 in the first half as France turned a 22-19 first-quarter deficit into a 50-34 halftime lead.
Forward Linas Kleiza carried the Lithuanians with 16 points early in the game but lack of support from back-court players pegged back the 2003 winners as they also got muscled off the boards by an athletic French outfit who picked up 17 rebounds more than their rivals.
France built a 76-56 lead with three minutes left and set the tone for celebrations in the Stozice Arena, with Parker netting a pair of audacious lay-ups in the closing stages to put the icing on the cake and throw the French fans into raptures.
He finished the game with 12 points, Diaw chipped in with 15 and six rebounds while Batum could take the foot off the gas pedal as the rest of the French team joined the party, with 10 of their 12 players getting on the scoresheet.
“What we’ve just done is amazing,” Batum, who finished with 17 points and six rebounds, said in a courtside interview.
“We fought, we never gave up. French basketball needed that and it’s pure rapture.”
Diaw added: “This is what we managed to achieve after a decade of building and hard work. We never doubted our ability and always had the confidence we could go all the way.”
Earlier on Sunday, 2011 winners Spain, who will host next year’s World Cup, strolled to the bronze medal with a 92-66 rout of Croatia.