While the 24 best in Europe were getting ready to feel Slovenia this autumn, 13 not so lucky teams were having another goal set for the far future.
2015 seems quite some time away, but those 13 teams decided to give it a try and participate in the latest whim of FIBA Europe – 1st Qualifying Tournament for Eurobasket 2015.
One team from 13 got the chance to qualify early and have a free summer in 2014, and that is Estonia. But how did Estonia managed it up to the top – getting the first visa to Ukraine?!
Participating in that 1st Qualifying Tournament were Bulgaria, Iceland, Romania, Estonia, Portugal, Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belarus, Slovak Republic and Hungary.
While many of those never had a chance to play on Eurobasket 2013, some, as Bulgaria and Estonia, missed the ticket to Slovenia by an inch, as both were left behind only by goal average.
Bulgaria entered this summer as one of the favorites in the 1st Qualifying Tournament. Despite not being on top of their game, Bulgarians won where it was needed, and reached the Semifinals as a leader in Group A. So did Belarus, playing well when it mattered in Group D.
The other two groups offered more emotions.
In Group B, the emotions were offbeat for Netherlands, after FIBA Europe handed them two forfeit losses. Netherlands were punished for registering two naturalized players, in the rosters for the games vs Estonia and Portugal. That way, the wins were stripped off their balance, and their opponents were given 20-0 result.
That way, Estonia topped Group B and reached the Semis, where Belarus awaited them.
In the most dramatic group development, Group C winner was decided in the last game, after an overtime. It was all about Switzerland and Austria from the start, while Denmark and Luxembourg offering too little resistance. Up to the last day, Switzerland remained unbeaten, with 5 wins, and Austria had 4 wins and a loss, waiting Swiss team at home for the decider.
Switzerland won vs Austria at home by 6 points, and had to manage at least a smaller loss to get through. Led by Rasid Mahalbasic, who just returned from NBA Summer League, Austrians had a good shot to turn things their way. In Schwechat though, it was the Swiss who led by 10 points at the break. Austria was better in the second half, to reach an overtime and even to get the win, but only by a single point – 97:96 – not enough to erase the six point difference from their first meet.
Dusan Mladjan shined in all Swiss games in the round he played, even getting a rest in the Luxembourg game at home.
So, the semifinalists were clear and it was up to Bulgaria – Switzerland and Belarus – Estonia to decide the two finalists.
The first one was a one-way street – Bulgaria was too strong for young Swiss and managed big wins in both games. Belarus and Estonia gave the audience a little more excitement – Belarusians got 6-point lead from the first game at home, but came tumbling down in Tallinn to lose by 18 and that way to set clear the big final.
It came down to undoubtedly the two best teams in this 1st Qualifying Round – Bulgaria and Estonia to decide the one spot to Eurobasket 2013. In a very low-scoring adventure, in both games, Bulgaria didn’t gave enough, to accomplish the goal. Estonia, on the other hand, played two very tactical games, moved the ball with a hint of perfection and had an ultimate knowledge on Bulgarians game. Led by Kristjan Kangur, who truly deserved his star-status in this qualifiers, Estonians earned everyone’s respect. And from now on, getting to Eurobasket after 14-years wait, Europe really needs to hear about Estonian basketball. 7000 people on Tallinn supported their team to the last minute, in a breathtaking atmosphere, that numbed Bulgaria from minute one. The same crowd will most likely travel to Ukraine in 2015 to support Estonia on Eurobasket, and if it goes on like that – Estonia will be one of the nice surprises, two years from now.
Estonia really cares about basketball – everyone beware!