LILLE, France (Reuters) - Lithuania set up a mouthwatering European championship showdown with Spain and sealed an Olympic berth after beating Serbia 67-64 in a captivating semi-final on Friday.
The Lithuanians and Spaniards, who clash on Sunday, have clinched automatic spots at next year’s Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Serbia, France, Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic will enter an intercontinental qualifying tournament next July for an extra three places at the 2016 Olympics.
Lithuania’s ironclad defense stifled the tournament’s highest-scoring team, who had averaged 88 points per game, reducing Serbia to six three-point goals from 28 attempts.
Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas dominated the low post, scoring 11 of his 15 points in the first half as Lithuania forced the Serbians out of their paint.
Forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas was the Baltic nation’s trump card with 13 points and nine rebounds and playmaker Mantas Kalnietis chipped in with 12 and nine assists.
The Serbians, driven by Milos Teodosic, reached the semis with an unbeaten 7-0 record but the Lithuanians gave the versatile playmaker preciously little room to operate.
Power forward Nemanja Bjelica, signed by the Minnesota Timberwolves during the current NBA break, also faltered against aggressive half-court pressure by Lithuania.
Teodosic finished as the game’s top scorer with 16 points and Bjelica added 10 but the Lithuanians cut off the supply routes to Serbia’s key players in a nerve-jangling finish.
Cool free-throw shooting allowed the Lithuanians, who nailed 15 of 18 shots from the foul line, to keep nosing ahead and their vociferous fans were elated after the Serbians missed a last-gasp effort from the halfway line.
The final will offer a clash of contrasting styles in Lille’s soccer stadium, which has been adapted for the 24-nation tournament with Spain’s 80-75 semi-final win over France on Thursday setting a new indoor crowd record of 27,000.
A balanced Lithuanian team will face the tournament’s top scorer Pau Gasol, who steered the Spaniards past holders and hosts France with a staggering 40 points and 11 rebounds.
France and Serbia will meet in the bronze-medal match on Sunday before the finalists take center stage.
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Ken Ferris