Thanks to 35 points from Goran Dragic and a group effort to stay afloat when both Dragic and Luka Doncic left with injuries in the second half, Slovenia became the 2017 Eurobasket champions on Sunday, defeating Serbia, 93-85.
But unlike the powerhouse countries like Spain and France, Slovenia wasn’t supposed to be champions today. Instead, they had to persevere through a history that did not set them up for success.
1. Slovenia wasn’t even independent until relatively recently
Instead, it was part of Yugoslavia, a country then comprised of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. It wasn’t until 1991 that Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, and it endured a brutal 10-day war in the immediate aftermath.
2. For that reason, Slovenia is a very small country
Take a wild guess at Slovenia’s population. If you thought more than 2.5 million, you thought wrong. More people live in New York City (8.5 million), Los Angeles (3.9 million), and Chicago (2.7 million) than Slovenia (2.1 million).
These are cities, not states and certainly not countries.
3. It also has very little basketball history
After its independence in 1991, Slovenia attempted to compete in Olympic basketball. Attempted.
Slovenia failed to qualify for each of the past seven Summer Olympics, qualified and got butchered three times in FIBA World Cup play (2006, 2010, 2014), and never placed higher than fourth in Eurobasket competitions. In fact, between 1993 and 2003, Slovenia never placed higher than 10th.
4. So they never should have gotten past certain teams
Luka Doncic is talented and will be on an NBA roster next season, but Goran Dragic was the only active NBA player on Slovenia’s team. While they were expected to dispatch Ukraine in the first round, Slovenia was supposed to be an afterthought.
Instead, they did away with Kristaps Porzingis, Davis Bertans, and Latvia, then pounded a loaded Spain team — with Pau and Marc Gasol, Willy and Juancho Hernangomez, Ricky Rubio, and Alex Abrines — by 20 before reaching the Eurobasket final.
5. Even in the Final, they weren’t supposed to win
Dragic exploded for 35 points in the first three quarters, and Luka Doncic’s potential as a top-five draft pick in 2018 was on full display. But two strokes of misfortune nearly killed a firm Slovenian hold on the Final.
First, Doncic suffered a left ankle injury in the third quarter and left the game for good. Without him, the brunt of the offensive load was placed on Dragic.
But then late in the fourth quarter, Dragic left the game with a mix of fatigue and cramps of his own.
Without both of their star players, Slovenia watched Serbia take a late lead in the fourth quarter.
6. But they did, and now they’re champions
Thanks to a three-point play by Anthony Randolph (yes, that Anthony Randolph — he became a naturalized Slovenian citizen to compete in the tournament) and a clutch step-back jump shot from Klemen Prepelič, Slovenia put away Serbia, 93-85, to become Eurobasket champions for the first time in their history.
They went an undefeated 9-0 to get there, become the first team to go undefeated and win the championship since 1995. Ironically, it was Yugoslavia which did it then.
Now, Slovenia can rest knowing their mission is complete. Damn, that’s a big deal.