ATLANTA -- When they met yesterday afternoon at Morehouse College, they weren't just two European basketball rivals playing for a little nationalistic pride. There was much more at stake for Lithuania and Croatia in the opening game of the preliminary round of the 1996 Olympics.
"The importance of this game was magnificent," Croatian coach Peter Stanski would say.
So was the game. In what was certainly the most significant game before the medal round, and probably the most evenly matched, Lithuania overcame the loss of its three best players during two overtimes and beat Croatia, 83-81. By winning, Lithuania likely will avoid playing the Dream Team until the gold-medal game.
On the heroics of Rimas Kurtinaitis, a 36-year-old guard who was the hero of the former Soviet Union's upset of the U.S. team in the 1988 Olympic semifinals, Lithuania beat a Toni Kukoc-led Croatian team despite having NBA players Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis foul out and former Seton Hall star Arturas Karnisovas possibly break his ankle.
"I was surprised. I thought it was lucky [to win]," said Marciulionis, who fouled out with 26.2 seconds left in regulation on a play that sent the game into the first overtime on two free throws by Kukoc. "I really appreciated our bench. We have worked hard on them being mentally ready."
It was the third straight time Lithuania had beaten Croatia since the Soviet Union disbanded.
Kukoc scored his team's first 17 points after halftime to turn a 38-31 deficit into a 48-47 lead, but then the Chicago Bulls forward all but disappeared down the stretch.
After tying the game at 66 on those free throws, Kukoc had a chance to be a hero after a steal by teammate Slavin Rimak with 24.6 seconds to go. But Kukoc, thinking Michael Jordan was in the corner, passed up a drive for an open baseline jumper by Davor Marcelic, who missed. Kukoc passed off to Marcelic at the end of the first overtime and he missed again.
"We had our chances," said Kukoc, who finished with a game-high 33 points despite a broken thumb on his shooting hand. "We didn't make our shots and that's it."
Kurtinaitis did. After scoring only four points in the first 45 minutes, Kurtinaitis scored eight in the second overtime. He hit a three-point shot and was fouled, converting the free throw to give Lithuania the lead at 78-77. With his team trailing 80-78, Kurtinaitis buried another three. After a free throw by Dino Radja of the Boston Celtics tied it at 81, Kurtinaitis hit one of two free throws.
Croatia had one last chance, but reserve guard Veljko Mrsic missed and Kurtinaitis hit another free throw.
Pub Date: 7/21/96