Midnight arrives for giant-slaying Latvia’s Cinderella run


Germany celebrates after beating Latvia to reach the Fiba World Cup semifinals. -MARLO CUETO/INQUIRER.net

Luca Banchi, the miracle worker behind one of the amazing stories of the Fiba World Cup, shed a tear while talking about Latvia’s amazing run that fell short of a storybook finish.

“It’s an unbelievable story,” the Italian mentor said after Latvia’s 81-79 loss to Germany in a thrilling quarterfinal that served as a prelude to the much-anticipated Slovenia-Canada tussle on Wednesday at Mall of Asia Arena.

Germany progressed to book a semifinal date with the United States on Friday, but not after surviving a last-minute scare when Davis Bertans, the NBA veteran who had been knocking down threes at the start, had a chance to win it for the debutants.

But Bertans couldn’t hit the shot and Latvia, which had to go through prequalifiers and made it to Manila by way of shock wins over France and ousted champion Spain in the first two rounds despite missing new Boston Celtics signee Kristaps Porzingis, was left in shock when the buzzer expired.

It ended what would have been a surprise Final Four appearance, although the team could still find its way to the Paris Olympics.

Banchi, however, is now looking much farther ahead.

“Unfortunately, it’s not the end that we wish, but there are foundations,” he said. “We work very hard from day one to recruit those guys, to select them, to prepare them. And today was the result of our daily effort.”

He’s also eyeing to end the tournament on a high, with Latvia now focused on the classification round for fifth to eighth places. The Cinderella team will play Banchi’s home country Italy and colorful counterpart Gianmarco Pozzecco on Thursday.

“I’m proud of my players, they have incredible effort,” Banchi said. “But of course, there are many regrets in the game. It was a one-possession difference and there are many reasons to know and believe. But when you play such level opponents, you have to be perfect.

“Right now, my mind is to keep fighting for those guys, just to keep the mental energy to stay in the tournament. We have two more games and we want to finish the competition in the best way possible. And I hope that we made a lot of people in Latvia proud,” he added.

Germany seemed to have the game locked in the fourth with an 11-point lead, but Latvia made a last-ditch effort behind guard Arturs Zagars, who after making four threes, decided to attack the paint that resulted in layups and the lead reduced to just a single basket.

Latvia, which successfully held Dennis Schroder to nine points and a four-of-26 shooting, was able to once again force the Germany guard to miss, setting up the end that Latvia had hoped would have ended differently.

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