The Spanish women’s basketball team nearly gave away its chance at advancing to the semifinals of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But Anna Cruz was not about to let the dream of becoming the first Spanish women’s side to win an Olympic basketball medal go up in smoke.
With 20 seconds left in their quarterfinal matchup with Turkey, Spain held a 62-60 lead and possession of the ball. All they needed to do was dribble into the frontcourt, force Turkey to foul them, hit their free throws and get a stop, and Spain would move on. Instead, though, Spanish star Alba Torrens — a two-time FIBA Europe Women’s Player of the Year and Euroleague Finals MVP who plays professionally in Russia — dribbled into the corner and tried to escape by throwing an ill-advised pass over the outstretched arms of Turkish center Lara Sanders. Turkey took control on the steal with 10 seconds left and raced down the other end; a stunned Spanish defense completely lost Sanders, who took an easy pass for a layup that knotted the game at 62 with 4.3 seconds left.
The 29-year-old Cruz — a point guard who played last season with the WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, and whose nifty behind-the-back dribble and stepback jumper had given Spain the lead with 36 seconds remaining — took the inbounds pass and sprinted up the floor, crossing half-court with just over two seconds remaining. She reached the 3-point arc one tick later, leapt, leaned and let it fly … and saw her jumper splash through the net at the buzzer, giving Spain a 64-62 win that moves them on the final four, and eliminates Turkey from the competition.
Turkey appeared to have the game well in hand, leading 60-52 with 3:44 remaining in the fourth quarter, thanks in large part to the work of Sanders. Formerly known as LaToya Pringle, the Nuremberg, Germany-born and Fayateville, N.C.-raised Sanders played for the University of North Carolina from 2004 through 2008 before becoming a first-round pick in the WNBA draft. She has spent much of the last half-dozen years playing professionally in Turkey, obtained Turkish citizenship during the 2012-13 season, and joined the Turkish national team in 2014.
The tournament’s second-leading scorer during group play, Sanders proved to be awfully tough for Spain to handle in the paint, scoring a team-high 22 points on 5-for-9 shooting to go with a perfect 12-for-12 mark at the foul line, 10 rebounds, four steals and two blocks in 38 1/2 minutes. She teamed with captain Nevriye Yilmaz (13 points, though none came after halftime) to carry the offensive load and get Turkey within striking distance of the victory in the closing minutes.
After Turkey had controlled the bulk of the action in the second half, though, Spain came roaring back in the late stages, ripping off 10 unanswered points behind a couple of timely baskets from power forward Laura Nicholls and the shot-making and facilitating of Cruz, who scored 10 of her 14 team-high points in the fourth quarter. Long-limbed, quick-footed defender Astou Ndour began making it difficult for Sanders to get loose, and Turkey’s offense crumbled down the stretch. Each missed 3-pointer or too-short layup breathed new life into Spain’s comeback hopes, and after a frantic few seconds, Cruz’s desperation runner brought them all the way back … and knocked Turkey all the way out.
Nicholls finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds (six on the offensive glass), while Torrens added six points on just 3-for-12 shooting and 11 boards for the winners, who will now to take on surprising Serbia, who stunned heavily favored Australia in the day’s first quarterfinal matchup, in the semifinals on Thursday. The two teams met in the opening game of group play, with Spain scoring a 65-59 win behind 15 points from Marta Xargay and double-doubles by Cruz and Ndour. This time, the stakes are far higher; the victor will compete for Olympic gold.
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