LJUBLJANA, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Former European champions Lithuania reached their first final since winning the 2003 tournament after an effervescent performance by their back-court players secured a 77-62 win over Croatia on Friday.
The Lithuanians romped into Sunday's showpiece thanks to an 18-3 run early in the second half and will lock horns with either holders Spain or 2011 runners-up France, who meet later on Friday.
Playmaker Mantas Kalnietis scored 18 points, shooting guard Jonas Maciulis netted a game-high 23 to go with six rebounds and forward Linas Kleiza sank 22 coupled with 11 rebounds to give a physical Lithuanian team their ninth win in 10 matches against the Croatians.
"We gave Kleiza and Maciulis too many open shots and we didn't play defence with enough tenacity," Croatia forward Bojan Bogdanovic, their top scorer with 15 points, told the country's national HRT television.
"The fans were our best player today and we can only hope that they come back in numbers on Sunday for the bronze-medal match."
Despite failing to contain Kleiza in the first half, when the former Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets sharpshooter scored 17 points, the Croatians rallied from a nine-point deficit and trailed 40-37 at halftime.
But Kalnietis and Maciulis took over from Kleiza after the interval as the Lithuanians romped away to a 58-40 lead midway through the third quarter, sparking wild celebrations among their fans in the Stozice Arena.
They held firm in the final period to snap Croatia's eight-game winning streak, which came after a crushing 68-40 opening day defeat by Spain and drove them to their first semi-final since they won the bronze medal in the 1995 tournament in Greece.
"The better team won and having more depth in a squad as athletic as Lithuania makes all the difference in a marathon 24-team tournament," said Croatia coach Jasmin Repesa.
"We hoped to go all the way but looked very flat today and had no chance of winning with poor perimeter shooting," he added after seeing his team nail only three of 20 three-pointers. (Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Justin Palmer)
- Sports & Recreation
- Linas Kleiza
- Mantas Kalnietis