Spain beats Russia 67-59 in men’s Olympic hoops

The euphoria was mixed with relief. Spain nearly lost its chance

at Olympic gold, and maybe worse, another shot at the

Americans.

So, when it ended, the Spaniards rejoiced – and exhaled.

They’ll play for a second straight title. Silver may suffice,

but gold would be sweeter.

”It’s huge to make it twice in a row to the Olympic finals,”

Pau Gasol said. ”We have to enjoy it and appreciate the moment,

but there’s still one game left. We can’t just be happy with

reaching the final.”

They nearly missed it.

Trailing by 11 at halftime, Spain rallied in the second half for

a 67-59 win over Russia on Friday and will get a rematch in the

final against the U.S., which powered over Argentina 109-83 in the

other semifinal.

Jose Calderon scored 12 of his 14 points after halftime, Pau

Gasol added 16 and Spain, battling injuries which had prevented it

from playing up to its high standards so far in this tournament,

dug deep in the second half to earn a spot in the finals for the

second straight Olympics.

Four years ago in Beijing, the Spaniards hung with the Americans

before losing 118-107. They’ll get another chance at the U.S., a

team showing no signs of slowing down until has gold dangling from

its necks.

Spain trailed Russia by 13 in the first quarter and was still

down by double digits in the third before showing why its the

world’s No. 2-ranked team. The Spaniards shot just 21 percent in

the opening half, but recovered to keep alive their dreams of

winning a first Olympic gold.

”We’re back again and we’re going to continue fighting,” Pau

Gasol said. ”Battling right to the end.”

After the final horn, Spain’s players gathered tightly in a

circle near midcourt and spun around in a circle, big kids on a

hardwood playground.

Pau Gasol gave Sergio Rodriguez a piggyback ride, Marc Gasol

rumbled into the stands to hug anyone he could get his hands on,

and other players embraced members of the Spanish royal family

sitting courtside. Even long after the game ended, Spanish fans

could still be heard roaring outside the media conference room.

Sasha Kaun scored 14 points and Andrei Kirilenko, playing with a

quadriceps injury, added 10 for Russia, which collapsed in the

second half.

Spain figured to be among the last teams standing, but for

nearly 30 minutes it appeared its roster full of NBA talent and

some of the game’s most experienced international players, would be

playing for bronze instead of gold. Disappointment was looming, and

the Spaniards knew it.

Their shots weren’t falling, and with Russia playing disciplined

and relaxed, Spain was in serious trouble.

But Calderon, who plays for the Toronto Raptors, ignited his

countrymen with three 3-pointers in the second half and Spain got a

big lift off the bench from reserves Felipe Reyes and Sergio

Llull.

Spain, which lost to Russia in pool play, awakened in the third

and closed within 44-41 on Pau Gasol’s 3-pointer, a shot he

celebrated by flashing three fingers on both hands. Following a

turnover by Russia, the Los Angeles Lakers star hammered home a

rebound to bring Spain within one.

Calderon then ended the period with a 3-pointer as Spain caught

Russia at 46-all entering the fourth.

Calderon’s 3 with 7:22 left gave Spain its first lead, and he

hit another long-range jumper to make it 58-50 with 5:11

remaining.

Meanwhile, the Russians fell apart. After making just three

turnovers in the first half, they had eight in the first 15 minutes

of the second half, sloppiness that would haunt them.

”We kind of started falling down,” Kirilenko said. ”We lost

our composure. We just stopped executing. In the first half we did

a very good job of converting our defense into offense, we stayed

with our game, made some easy shots and layups. We stopped doing

that in the second half.”

After Marc Gasol powered down low for a layup and was fouled,

Spain’s lead had grown to 10 and the bearded, bruising center let

out a scream that could be heard back in Madrid.

His brother then delivered a dagger-like dunk, sending Spain’s

fans into their familiar chants of ”Ole, ole, ole.”

Spain would play for gold after all.

The Spaniards have dealt with guard Juan Carlos Navarro’s

nagging injuries, Marc Gasol’s sore shoulder and overcome the loss

of star point guard Ricky Rubio to move within one win of a

title.

They’ll play one more game, one for everything.

”I’m extremely proud of all we have accomplished as a team,”

said coach Sergio Scariolo. ”That doesn’t mean that our mission is

over.”