Greatest upsets in modern EuroBasket history: Where does Slovenia rank?

Daily Writer
2022-09-16 08:05

Poland delivered the upset of the tournament eliminating Slovenia in the quarterfinal of EuroBasket 2022. BasketNews decided to take a look at where the game would rank in the history of EuroBasket upsets.

Credit: FIBA, Fotodiena.lt/R.Dačkus
Credit FIBA, Fotodiena.lt/R.Dačkus

EuroBasket 2022 has featured numerous close games and various upsets. With the semifinal stage on our nose, the Big Three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic have all been eliminated from the tournament.

Throughout the 87-year EuroBasket history, there have been many historical games and memorable moments that fans cite for decades to come.

EuroBasket 2022 is shattering scoring records, with the level of the game being the highest in recent memory. However, not everything is usually bright and shiny, as some national teams must experience the sadness of getting knocked out.

There have been multiple upsets in modern EuroBasket history, most of them often regarded as tragedies by the local basketball fans.

BasketNews decided to take a look and rank the biggest upsets in modern EuroBasket history, starting from 1991.

With Poland sensationally eliminating Slovenia in EuroBasket 2022, where does this match rank in the broader context of games?

Let's take a look.


5. Serbia vs. Italy - 2022

One of this year's upsets starts the list at number five. Is it recency bias? It very well may be but let's just look at the number, the rosters, and the teams' situations heading into the Round of 16.

Serbia was a clear favorite, beating their opponents by an average margin of 21 points. The team had two of the best players in the tournament - the reigning two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic and the current EuroLeague MVP Vasilije Micic.

Regarded as one of the best players in the world, Jokic didn't even seem to be playing at 100% most of the time, as the Serbian national team was clearly superior to the competition in Group D.

Even though Jokic was the only NBA player on the roster, every other player on the 12-man roster except Dusan Ristic played in the EuroLeague last season. Svetislav Pesic's team features two top-five EuroLeague small forwards in Nikola Kalinic and Vladimir Lucic. Nikola Milutinov, although bugged by injuries, was regarded as the top center in Europe just a year ago.

A proved contributor and steady shooter, Marko Guduric, coupled with Ognjen Jaramaz, who blossomed towards the end of the EuroLeague season in FC Bayern Munich, provided a strong presence from the outside.

Everything is suited up with players that know their roles and can perform specific tasks on the court.

On the other side, Italy was mainly led by three players during the tournament. Nicolo Melli, Achille Polonara, and Simone Fontecchio were the focal point of the Italian offense. Neither of them was a major star in the EuroLeague. Oftentimes, tremendous production would intertwine with lackluster performances.

Melli is capable of delivering games of 20+ PIR, but the forward would often finish matches with the rating of just 3 or 6. Polonara had a breakout year with Baskonia but was frequently lost in Fenerbahce's rotation and would only see significant minutes with other players out.

Fontecchio would sometimes show glimpses of the potential we could see during the 2020 Olympic Games, but an 11-point EuroLeague average does not signal an NBA player right away, especially when people expected much more after a strong showing last year.

Besides the three, Nico Mannion, Marco Spissu, and Luigi Datome are the main helpers, but all three have severe limitations in their games.

Paul Biligha, Stefano Tonut, Amedeo Tessitori, Giampaolo Ricci, Tommaso Baldasso, and Alessandro Pajola were largely non-factors and played just because of the situation they were in.

Italy would live by three and die by the three, losing two group games to Greece and Ukraine and edging a close victory against Croatia.

Comparing the teams, a clear advantage goes to Serbia. However, Italy had a secret weapon - head coach Gianmarco Pozzecco.

Pozzecco is not a great tactician, and he himself knows and admits it. Instead, some of the playcalling duties are often transferred to his assistants, and the Italian national team is no exception.

While he's not a genius with a basketball board in his hands, Pozzecco has a heart of gold and an attitude that pushes his players to fight for him until the very last breath.

The third quarter also featured a very important moment that completely changed the course of the game.

Having previously received a technical foul himself, Pozzecco got ejected when the second technical foul was given to the team bench. He hugged and kissed everyone and left the court with tears in his eyes.

Usually, when the head coach leaves, the team slips into decay, but this instance was different. The Italian players toughened up even more. The team went on a 16-2 run to start the fourth quarter, with Jokic mostly sitting on the bench.

The Serbians could not hit open shots, and only Jokic's acrobatic four-point play stopped the drought (74-82). It was not enough, though, as Melli continued to outplay his competition on both sides of the court, leaving Jokic to play hero-ball in the last minutes.

Italy ultimately captured a comfortable win to send Serbia home. As the match neared its end, Pozzecco showed up near the team's bench to celebrate with his men, hugging and kissing Giannis Antetokounmpo in the hallway moments later.

"It's probably the best match in the history of Italian basketball," Pozzecco would describe it after the game. "The second comes a semifinal in 2004 when I was still playing in Athens. Everyone considers the latter game as the best in history, but tonight's game was much better. We played with heart."

4. Lithuania vs. Latvia - 2001

Usually, Lithuanian fans remember two distinct matches when asked about the biggest disappointment in their country's basketball history. However, the fiasco that happened in 2001 is often forgotten.

Let's glance over the situation that we had in 2001. The year prior, Lithuania almost shocked the entire basketball world by being a shot away from becoming the first team ever to beat the USA Dream Team.

Lithuania ultimately went on to win the bronze medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Coached by Jonas Kazlauskas, who won the EuroLeague with Zalgiris Kaunas in 1999, the Lithuanians entered the EuroBasket 2001 as one of the clear favorites to take the trophy or at least a medal.

Looking at the roster, Kazlauskas had 7 of the 12 players that almost defeated the US in 2000, with four of the top-five scorers remaining for the tournament.

Sarunas Jasikevicius was a young star in the making, already averaging 14 points and 5.6 assists for FC Barcelona in the EuroLeague. Saulius Stombergas was a solid starter at the Tau Ceramica team that only lost in the EuroLeague final that year.

He even had one of the greatest shooting performances in the tournament's history that season, scoring 39 points and making all nine 3-pointers against AEK Athens.

Gintaras Einikis was a solid veteran who averaged 14.3 points and 5.9 rebounds in the FIBA SuproLeague for CSKA Moscow. Darius Songaila was a talented student coming out of Wake Forest in the NCAA, while Mindaugas Timinskas was a reliable rotation player together with Stombergas in Tau Ceramica.

Surrounded by players that recently won the EuroLeague with Kazlauskas in 1999 (Tomas Masiulis, Dainius Adomaitis, Eurelijus Zukauskas), the core of the Lithuanian national team was not the one to be messed with.

After capturing the first two wins against Ukraine and Israel, Lithuania lost against France and finished the group in second place with two wins and one loss. Latvia, which won only one game in overtime against Slovenia, would await them in the second round.

The leader of the Latvian team, Kaspars Kambala, had just finished college at UNLV and had no professional basketball experience. The second-leading scorer, Ainars Bagatskis, was a 34-year-old veteran who spent the last season on a 5th-place team in the French league.

Third-leading scorer, Uvis Helmanis, and fifth-leading scorer, Raimonds Miglinieks, played in Poland, while Roberts Stelmahers, who was fourth in scoring, played for a 10th-place team in Turkey. 

None of the players had previous EuroLeague experience, and four of them were 20 years old or younger. Before 2001, Latvia did not even qualify for EuroBasket 1999.

Nevertheless, Latvia started the game better, but the first quarter ended in a tie (20-20). The underdogs continued their offensive performance and already led by 10 at halftime (45-35).

The third quarter continued on the same trend, with Latvia controlling the game and leading by a whopping 22-point margin at one point (64-42). Even though Lithuania narrowed the game a little to end the third quarter (66-52), it was not enough to switch the narrative of the game, and Latvia celebrated a well-deserved victory against its neighbor.

The 34-year-old Bagatskis led the way with 25 points on 8-for-10 shooting.

Following the loss, Lithuanian head coach Jonas Kazlauskas stepped down from the position, citing the result of the EuroBasket as a fiasco. As a result of the performance, Lithuania went on to miss the 2002 FIBA World Cup in Indianapolis after just recently being on the podium of the Olympic Games.

"Not only the fans but the basketball players themselves were in shock," Saulius Stombergas later remembered. "The team that went there to take a medal got eliminated in the Round of 16."

3. Serbia and Montenegro in 2005

A tournament that's widely regarded as the biggest tragedy in Serbian basketball history takes third place.

It would be easy to give the spot to Serbia and Montenegro's loss to France in the Round of 16, but it would be dishonest to the entire story and the impact it had on the national team for years to come.

Let's begin with the most important part - Serbia and Montenegro hosted EuroBasket 2005. When a country that loves basketball hosts a major basketball event, tremendous expectations usually follow. This time was no exception.

"The team can have only one goal, and that goal is a gold medal," head coach Zeljko Obradovic said before the tournament. "We host the tournament, and that's our obligation."

It was the comeback tournament for Serbia and Montenegro. After winning the EuroBasket 2001 and capturing gold at the 2002 FIBA World Cup, the country placed 6th in EuroBasket 2003 and finished just 11th in the 2004 Olympic Games. The national team looked for change.

Zeljko Obradovic had already won four medals with the national team at that time (silver in the 1996 Olympic Games, gold in EuroBasket 1997, gold in 1998 World Cup, bronze in EuroBasket 1999).

After leaving the team, the coach won the EuroLeague for the 5th time, placing himself at the very top of European basketball. The Serbian Basketball Federation decided to bring him back.

With Obradovic back, many veterans decided to give this EuroBasket one last shot. Famously, Dejan Tomasevic was convinced to join the roster after deciding to rest for the entire summer. It was also the last stint for Dejan Bodiroga and Zeljko Rebraca.

In the group stage, Serbia and Montenegro lost the first game against Spain but won the remaining two against Israel and Latvia and advanced to the Round of 16 from second place. Meanwhile, France struggled in all three matches.

France had lost to Slovenia and Greece, with their only win coming against Bosnia and Herzegovina, although the Bosnians led after the first half.

France came into the matchup against Serbia and Montenegro as heavy underdogs. Tony Parker was the undisputed star of the roster, but he wasn't himself. 

In the three group stage games, Parker averaged just 4.6 points and 1.3 assists on disappointing 26% shooting. Boris Diaw, who led the team in scoring, had missed all 11 (!) of his free throws in the last match against Slovenia.

Antoine Rigaudeau was the only veteran on the team that could provide solid minutes on the court. He was not his true self either.

Rigaudeau suffered an Achilles injury in September of 2004 and had to undergo surgery, sidelining him for six months. He only played two games the entire season for Valencia Basket in EuroCup.

The main center of the team was Cyril Julian, who averaged just 4.2 points and 2.8 rebounds in the EuroCup the season before. Frederic Weis would share minutes with him, a player who is better known for getting dunked on during the 2000 Olympic Games than any of his actual performances.

France had a rough preparatory cycle before the EuroBasket as well. After beating Belgium, they went on a five-game losing streak.

The last match of the streak was against Serbia and Montenegro, where Obradovic's team dismantled the French 99-72. The Serbians led by 31 points at one time, and later head coach Claude Bergeaud admitted to having no weapons against the opponent.

On the other side of the court, Obradovic had the legendary Dejan Bodiroga, who at 32 years old was still producing, although not at the same rate as before. Nenad Krstic came back from the New Jersey Nets after being named to the All-Rookie 2nd Team. Vladimir Radmanovic was coming off a 9.8-point and 4.6-rebound season in the NBA.

Marko Jaric was also an established point guard with the Minnesota Timberwolves, while Igor Rakocevic had already built his name as one of the more prolific scorers in Europe, averaging 18.6 points per game in the EuroCup.

Add NBA veteran Zeljko Rebraca, EuroLeague starter Vlado Scepanovic, and Milan Gurovic, who averaged 16.6 points and 6.1 rebounds in the EuroCup, and you have a team that's ready to win now.

Serbia and Montenegro started the game better and even held a 14-point lead in the second quarter (38-24), leading by nine at half (44-35). However, France battled back while the home team struggled to get consistent attacking returns.

With three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and Serbia and Montenegro leading by one (66-65), Mickael Pietrus hit a tough and-one over Bodiroga and converted the ensuing free throw to put France up by two (68-66).

A minute later, Parker waved through the opponents' defense to score an important layup to push the lead up to four (70-66). Rakocevic hit a pull-up jumper on the next possession, but Florent Pietrus answered with a tip-in (72-68).

Then, Bodiroga hit a triple, but Nenad Krstic fouled out fighting for the rebound, which sent Florent Pietrus to the free-throw line. The forward converted one shot, and the teams were separated by two with a minute to go (73-71).

After Boris Diaw missed both free throws, Serbia and Montenegro had a chance to take the game with 30 seconds left, but Milan Gurovic's wide-open three-pointer did not go in, and the home team had to foul.

Rigaudeau made just one free throw, giving the Serbs one more chance (74-71). Marko Jaric got fouled on the ensuing possession and had to go to the free-throw line. The guard missed the first shot and intentionally missed the second. Darko Milicic got the rebound and missed the layup that followed, but France committed a foul once again, this time on Rebraca.

The center missed both shots as well. Serbia and Montenegro got the offensive rebound but did not have enough time to prepare a comfortable shot, and France celebrated a victory that shocked the crowd.

Strangely enough, the biggest story was yet to come. After the loss, Zeljko Obradovic came to the press conference and delivered what is now known as the most famous press conference in Serbian basketball history.

He openly questioned his players' ethics and commitment to the team, giving lengthy and passionate answers to all journalist questions. The coach even debated some of the journalists who were openly disagreeing with Obradovic at some points. The entire press conference lasted for more than half an hour.

"It was not the tactics that lost us [the game] but the relations in the national team. Every day for the past two months, I set aside at least an hour a day to talk to each of the players and kill their egos. I just didn't make it. They just hate each other, it's an incredible hatred," Zeljko said.

"For a month, during team meetings, I didn't let go of the phone. Every day I begged them to come as if the national team was my private matter," the coach said. "They procrastinated, waiting to see what the other was going to do so that they would respond later, and that's how the scumbags turned out."

Many players partied for extended time instead of practicing or preparing for games, while multiple strong personalities clashed whenever they entered the court together. When the management wanted to investigate the situation, the players refused to provide any information.

"I have worked and played with many players in my career, but I have never encountered anything like this," Obradovic said. "My only regret is that I didn't send four or five players away from the preparations right at the beginning, hoping the atmosphere would improve."

The legendary coach explained in detail how players would pay little to no attention during practices while blaming others for not getting the ball on offense.

When journalists repeatedly asked to name the specific players the coach had in mind, Obradovic had a simple answer.

"Ask them. If they have balls, they will tell you."

Even after 17 years, both players and coaches from that team are still being interviewed about this tournament and the press conference that followed.

"I can go to the board and show them what I have won and what they have won," Obradovic told back then. "I have no doubt that I will continue to win."

In the years that followed, Obradovic won the EuroLeague four more times while none of the 12 players won a major European trophy. Only Nenad Krstic managed to reach a final, losing a EuroLeague final, a EuroBasket final, and a World Cup final in his career.

2. Lithuania vs. FYR of Macedonia - 2011

This is the day every Lithuanian basketball fan would like to forget. EuroBasket 2011 was hosted in Lithuania, with many new arenas opened just for that occasion. Tons of additional events were hosted for the fans to spike up interest for the upcoming games, and the vast majority of Lithuanians were hyped to see the best national teams come to their country for the first time in 72 years.

Being the hosts, Lithuania was touted as one of the favorites of the EuroBasket, even though an impressive list of talent arrived to play for their national teams, some for the first and only time in their careers.

Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Chris Kaman, Andrei Kirilenko, Andrea Bargnani, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Nikola Pekovic, Hedo Turkoglu, and Marco Belinelli are just a few names that decided to suit up and represent their national countries that year.

Lithuania featured a hefty amount of veterans coupled with up-and-coming youngsters in a well-balanced group of youth and experience. They were coming off a third-place finish a year ago in the 2010 FIBA World Cup.

Darius Songaila returned after his tenure in the NBA, Rimantas Kaukenas provided solid minutes after being a regular starter in Montepaschi Siena in the EuroLeague, Mantas Kalnietis was continuing his strong performance in the national team, Paulius Jankunas was hitting his peak years, Robertas Javtokas was the starting center of EuroLeague playoff-bound Valencia Basket.

Martynas Pocius came after his best-ever 11-point-average EuroLeague season, Jonas Valanciunas was just drafted 5th overall in the 2011 NBA draft, while Sarunas Jasikevicius was still a serviceable veteran, playing for Fenerbahce Istanbul in the EuroLeague.

Additionally, Lithuania had Ksistof Lavrinovic on the bench, who was averaging 11.8 points and 5 rebounds in the Euroleague the season prior.

In total, Lithuania had 11 EuroLeague players and 1 NBA player on the roster. In comparison, Macedonia had only two EuroLeague players on the roster - Bo McCalebb and Vlado Ilievski. Only Todor Gechevski played in the EuroCup season before EuroBasket 2011. All other players did not participate in European club competitions.

According to some sources, the Macedonians would party every other day during the tournament. The players would play games during practices instead of actually preparing for the games, they would order pizzas every time.

When asked whether it was correct not to pay any attention to practices during the championship, they would answer that they came already ready and did not need to improve anything. Bo McCalebb was caught partying numerous times until early morning.

Coming into EuroBasket 2011, Macedonia was almost unknown to most European fans. It was the first tournament to feature 24 teams instead of 16. Nevertheless, Macedonia placed first in Group C with four wins and one loss and continued their winning ways into the second round, beating Georgia and Slovenia, losing only to Russia.

In the end, Macedonia placed second in Group F, setting up a clash against Lithuania, who lost to reigning champions Spain and France along the way and ended up third in Group E.

Despite the difference in standings, Lithuania was viewed as the clear favorite of the quarterfinal matchup. After a disappointing EuroBasket 2009 where everything seemed to go wrong for the national team, Lithuania looked to bounce back and capture a medal once again.

Macedonia did not look like a possible threat to the vast majority of basketball fans and experts alike.

Little did they know that September 14th of 2011 will be remembered as one of probably just two days in Lithuanian basketball history that every basketball fan can cite for years to come.

The entire match was close until the very last minute. With a minute left, Lithuania was up by 4 (65-61). Even though Bo McCalebb closed the deficit to just two (65-63), the home team still had the upper hand.

When Jasikevicius slipped and gave the ball away with 32 seconds to go, McCalebb had a chance to tie the game but missed a layup on the ensuing possession. Darius Songaila grabbed the rebound, and it seemed that the game was decided, as Macedonia would need to foul for a chance to save the game as only 22 seconds were left on the clock.

However, one of the most infamous plays happened next. Songaila's pass to Jasikevicius was way off, and Vojdan Stojanovski stole it to give the away team one more shot at a win. This time, it was deadly as Vlado Ilievski hit a clutch three with 11 seconds to go to put Macedonia up by one (66-65).

With 5 seconds to go, Lithuania had a real chance to take the lead back. Simas Jasaitis, who was previously shooting 2-pointers with 56% accuracy and 3-pointers with a stunning 65.3% accuracy, had a wide-open jumper in the corner with no one around. However, the forward missed the shot, and Lithuania suffered probably the saddest loss in recent memory.

Even though Macedonia did not win a single game after the quarterfinal, it helped several players earn significant contracts for the upcoming seasons. Pero Antic became a household name in European basketball, signing a deal with Olympiacos Piraeus, which would later propel him to the NBA.

Predrag Samardziski signed with EuroLeague's Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius, while Vlado Ilievski transferred to Anadolu Efes Istanbul.

Bo McCalebb became the hero of EuroBasket and showed Europe that point guards could be different. He showed that point guards can be scorers and not just distributors of basketball.

He is now enshrined as one of Macedonia's greats and even earned the nickname of Bosko McCalebovski during the EuroBasket.

1. Slovenia vs. Poland - 2022

Recency bias? Probably. However, looking at the facts and the difference between the teams and their rosters, I am ready to call this the biggest upset in modern EuroBasket history.

Before the match, bookmakers gave Slovenia an average 92% chance of coming away with a victory. Compared to second place on this list, Lithuania had an implied 89% chance of beating Macedonia, according to bookmakers.

Not a single player from the Polish national team will play either in the NBA or the EuroLeague next season.

Even the biggest star of the roster, Mateusz Ponitka, will not play in the EuroLeague. Instead, he has signed a three-month contract with UnaHotels Reggio Emilia with the ability to extend it for the entire season.

Only two players will play in the EuroCup - AJ Slaughter and Aleksander Balcerowski - while one player will even compete in the third French league.

On the other side of the court, we have global basketball superstar Luka Doncic who is probably more talented than the entire Polish team combined. Besides him, Goran Dragic returned for his last dance with the national team, providing additional leadership and depth on the roster.

Further on, we have Mike Tobey, who is usually the favorite pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop target for Doncic. Outside the paint, Denver Nuggets' Vlatko Cancar and Valencia Basket's Klemen Prepelic provide consistent shooting beyond the arc.

Before the matchup, Slovenia was the highest-scoring team in the tournament, with a 92-point average. Doncic, meanwhile, was coming off three consecutive 30+ point performances, one of them being a 47-point show against France, which was the second-best in EuroBasket history.

Even though Slovenia was the overwhelming favorite, the game started off in a different direction. With several minutes to go in the second quarter, Poland already had a 23-point lead (54-31) and headed into halftime leading by 19 (58-39).

To put this into context, the deficit Slovenia faced was unprecedented. With Luka Doncic on the roster, the biggest deficit the Slovenian national team faced throughout the last 5 years was 17 points in the bronze medal match last year in the Olympic Games against Australia.

This time, it was against a country with no NBA or EuroLeague player on the roster.

Despite all that, Slovenia mounted a 21-3 run in the third quarter to not only come back to the game but later even take the lead (65-64), showing the immense ability to go on explosive offensive spurts at any time.

Dissatisfied with the work of the referees, Luka Doncic, meanwhile, received his second technical foul of the tournament in the fourth quarter. In the following several minutes, Luka received two more personal fouls and had to leave the game fouling out with three minutes remaining and Slovenia down by four (80-76).

Without Doncic, Slovenia went down by seven (80-87) but later managed to narrow their deficit to just three (87-90) with 31 seconds to go. AJ Slaughter's midrange jumper was off, but Slovenia did not manage to create a reasonable shot attempt in the remaining time, and Poland celebrated the biggest victory in the country's basketball history.

The national team that previously placed 18th, 11th, 21st, 17th, 9th, and 13th in the last six EuroBaskets managed to beat the reigning European champions with a global superstar on the roster that was averaging nearly 30 points per game and had just recently put up a historic performance against one of the better defenses of the tournament.

The last time Poland made it to the EuroBasket semifinal was back in 1971, with only 12 teams competing in the tournament. Since then, four countries that took part in the tournament no longer exist. There was no semifinal round, and Poland just played for third place based on their group results.

When FIBA made their power ranking before EuroBasket 2022, Poland was ranked 14th, while Slovenia was a clear no. 1, having previously beaten Serbia, which was also regarded as one of the undeniable favorites of the championship.

Mateusz Ponitka recorded just the third triple-double in EuroBasket history with 26 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists in his account, overshadowing Doncic in a direct head-to-head fight.

Goran Dragic came back to recapture the gold for the very last time while playing alongside his successor, finally retiring from the national team afterward. Instead, he left the court with his head down following a game that was described as a national catastrophe.



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