FIBAIn one of the most thrilling contests of FIBA basketball World Cup, Serbia exhibited superior hooping skills in the first three quarters and despite France putting a stiff challenge in the fourth, entered the final with a 90-85 victory in the semifinal played in Madrid on Friday. From less than satisfactory performance in group stage games, Serbia won their matches, when it mattered most. They went about beating more fancied teams in the crucial group stage matches and later in knock-out rounds to show the importance of peaking at right moments. Incidentally, both Serbia and France were not expected to make it this far in the competition, as Spain was heavily tipped as USA’s Gold Medal opponent.

For Serbia and France, the road to the round-of-4 was a tale of close matches and last-minute finishes. In their first Group match, France lost 63-65 in a tight finish with Brazil and escaped by a hair’s breadth with a score of 74-73 against Serbia in the second group game. The French won three group games but lost to Spain though their 3-2 finish was enough for qualifying in the round-of-16. France’s most talked-about knock-out stage performance was their booting out the highly fancied Spain 65-52 in the quarterfinals, before they faced Serbia yesterday.

The Serbians were even more fortunate. They had a wretched performance at Group stage. They lost to Brazil, France and Spain to finish with a 2-3 record with two victories against Egypt and Iran, the weaker teams in the tournament. But in their round-of-16 match, Serbia stunned Greece and then took their revenge against Brazil before the semifinal showdown with France.

In an inspired performance on Friday, Milos Teodosic carved out a way for the Serbs by scoring 18 points in the first half and 6 in the second. The 27-year old Teodosic was largely instrumental for his team’s 46-32 first half lead, that worked as a cushion, when the French came back roaring in the last quarter in trying to tilt the applecart. As the match began, France were considered as the firm favorites after shocking hosts Spain in the quarter-finals but spirited and fast-paced Serbians snatched the initiative in the first twenty minutes. Led by Milos Teodosic, Serbia raced away with a decisive advantage in the first three quarters to the utter dismay of the Frenchmen, who kept searching with retaliatory response. They found one in the last 10 minutes, when they scored an amazingly high number of baskets at 39 to Serbia’s 29. But Serbia’s early lead was so wide that France still fell short by 5 points to lose the thriller 90-85. While Teodosic led the charge for Serbia, the imposing presence of Miroslav Raduljica blocked many French moves. Besides, Teodosic and Raduljica, four other Serbian players finished with double-digit scores with Stefan Markovic nailing 11 and Nemanja Bjelica scoring 10. Coming off the bench, Bogdan Bogdanovic scored 13 and Nenad Krstic added 11. For France, shooting guard Nicolas Batum ransacked the Serbian field and ended as the game’s top scorer with 35 points, with most of which coming in the final late surge. From 46-32 in the first half, France narrowed the gap to 84-82 but Serbians held on to outscore France 6-3 in the last 100 seconds to make their historic entry in the final.

For Sunday’s gold medal match, Serbia will meet tournament favorite USA, who have had a great run in winning all their eight matches by big margins. Their closest game was against Mexico, whom they beat in the round-of-16 match 86-63. In the play-off for the third spot, France will play Lithuania on Saturday.