Slovenia magic: role players became stars in a crucial win against Australia

Edvinas Jablonskis
Daily Editor
2023-09-02 05:00

Slovenia role players played a huge part in a crucial win against Australia. Mike Tobey, Zoran Dragic, Aleksej Nikolic, and Gregor Hrovat talked with BasketNews about what it's like to make such an impact. 

Credit: FIBA

Slovenia national team beat Australia in a crucial FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 matchup and clinched a place in the quarterfinal. And Slovenia has done it in probably the only possible way.

Before the game, the biggest question wasn't about the team's star, Luka Doncic, but whether his supporting cast would rise to the occasion and convert the opportunities created by Doncic.

"If it would be the best-of-seven series, Australia would win 4-0, 4-1," one of the Slovenian journalists said on Wednesday, when Slovenia clinched 1st place in the First Round. "But the good thing is that it's only one game. We'll need a perfect game from Luka and others, but we can win one."

Player of the Game
Mike  Tobey
Mike Tobey
Points 18
Accuracy 8-10
Rebounds 12
Assists 5

And those other guys stepped up big time.

From the very first minute, Zoran Dragic and Aleksej Nikolic knocked down two 3-pointers, while Mike Tobey was basically unstoppable.

In the first 10 minutes, Tobey accumulated 11 points (5/6 2PT, 0/1 3PT, 1/1 FT), 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, and 20 EFF.

He went on to finish 18 points (7/8 2PT, 1/2 3PT, 1/2 FT), 12 rebounds, 5 assists, and 33 EFF, claiming the Player of the Game award.

"It was great, we are really excited," Tobey said after the game. "We knew Australia was a great team, we went into the game knowing it will be important if we want to qualify. We're happiest about how we played."

"We were able to show that even though Luka was in foul trouble, we were able to play well and that we have a good team. Everybody stepped up," Tobey continued.

Indeed, everyone stepped up as all 10 Slovenian players who stepped on the court finished the game with points.

Most importantly, Slovenia didn't allow Australia to get closer even though Doncic was on the bench.

Doncic's first break was in the second quarter, and he spent 5 minutes on the bench after getting 3 fouls. Slovenia's lead from 11 points shrank only to 9 when Doncic stepped on the court again.

Then, he was benched with 2:25 left until 3rd quarter with Slovenia leading 62:53. Doncic checked in with 7 minutes to go in 4th quarter as the score was 73:64. So, in two stretches without Doncic, Slovenia allowed only 2 points.

One of the most challenging moments was the beginning of the fourth quarter. Josh Giddey closed the 3rd quarter with a 2-and-1 play, cutting the Boomers' deficit to only 4 points.

But then, Gregor Hrovat made a floater, Nikolic sank another 3-pointer, while Tobey added a lay-up, giving Slovenia a much-needed gulp of air.

"It feels amazing when it's such a team win," Nikolic told BasketNews after the game. "Even though Luka is the one leading us throughout the tournament, we play as a team at all times, and today was a perfect example of it."

"We knew they'd throw different defensive schemes, and we were ready for that. Everyone was mentally prepared to step up and take more responsibility," Nikolic continued.

More importantly, it seems that Slovenia learned one lesson from the past.

"In the past, we lost control. Today, we stayed focused in the game and cold-minded," Hrovat told BasketNews how Slovenia reacted to some of the referees' decisions.

Indeed, the refereeing was questionable, and it went both ways, but the officials had already lost the game's control before halftime. 

Even though Slovenian players didn't avoid heated reactions to some of the decisions, they also didn't allow emotions to go over the top, as happened against Poland in EuroBasket 2022.

"This is why I'm so proud of this team," Dragic told BasketNews. "I think some of the calls were not right, especially those two technicals. I don't know what they were given for. But it doesn't matter. We weren't bothered by this, we kept our focus and won the game."

Another reason Slovenia should be very satisfied with the win is because Australia's game plan against Doncic worked quite well.

Yes, Luka finished the game with 20 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 23 EFF, but was also forced 6 turnovers. He also scored his last 5 points in the last couple of minutes when the game's fate was already decided.

Throughout the game, Doncic was constantly double-teamed and, most of the time, without the ball in his hands. On top of that, he had to deal with the foul trouble.

If someone offered such a scenario before the game for Australia, Brian Goorjian would have taken it without blinking.

Yet, those role players have had an almost perfect game, making Australia's gamble ineffective.

"I'm really proud of how we played today," Doncic admitted after the game during the press conference. "Everybody stayed together no matter what. They [Australia] double-teamed me every possession, and everybody made the right play. We stayed together, and I think we are a great team."

It will be interesting to see what kind of confidence boost this victory will give to Slovenia. Even though some solid teams were already beaten, even more of them are about to come.

On Sunday, Slovenia will face a perfectly-oiled Germany's machine for the first place in Group K, while Canada looms in the quarterfinal.

"We want to win," Dragic said. "We are trying to win the medals. It was that 3rd place game in the Olympics... It was tough, especially the loss against France. Maybe we should have played in the final, but it is what it is. It's a new year."

Meanwhile, Doncic was not so specific on the end goal, but he promised one thing.

"We go game by game, and I don't know where will we land at the end, but I can assure you that we will give our everything every game like you saw today. It was a really important game, and we gave everything," Doncic said when he was asked whether he considers Slovenia as one of the favorites.

There were some doubts about Slovenia's prospects before the FIBA World Cup began, but this game just put them among the contenders to win the whole thing. When you have a superstar in Luka Doncic and a supporting cast that could deliver in the most crucial moments, you can expect good things to happen.

But just like yesterday, that supporting cast will need to prove its worth on the court.


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