LJUBLJANA, Slovenia (AP) — Croatia reached the semifinals of the European basketball championship for the first time in 18 years by handling Ukraine 84-72 and will play Lithuania, which edged Italy 81-77 on Thursday.
France and two-time defending champion Spain will contest the other semifinal on Friday. Since losing its opening game of the tournament to Spain by 28 points, Croatia has won eight straight games. "It's a long time since we've been in the semifinals. That was the first target for this young, talented generation but this story is too beautiful to stop here," Croatia coach Jasmin Repesa said. "Honestly, we expected to be in the semis, we have quality and a system."
"We are only thinking of the final," Croatia center Anto Tomic said. Croatia is seeking to make the podium for the first time since it took bronze at the 1995 tournament in Greece, where it fell to Lithuania in the semis. The only time Croatia played in a final was at the 1992 Olympics, when it lost to the U.S. Dream Team.
Dontaye Draper, Croatia's American-born point guard, had two steals and six points in a key 13-0 run at the start of the second quarter, when Ukraine failed to score in five minutes and had three turnovers while missing five straight 3-point attempts.
"I looked at my teammates and I heard them say, 'Ajde,' and I just tried to get some energy, to get something going, even a foul, anything," said Draper, who finished with six assists and four steals to go with six points. Ajde is Croatian for "come on."
Croatia used relentless zone pressing to lead by as many as 19. "The second quarter was our demise, we lost control of the game then," Ukraine coach Mike Fratello said. "We gave the ball away 17 times and you can't do that against a team like this."
Shooting guard Krunoslav Simon led Croatia with 23 points, while Pooh Jeter, another American-born point guard, had 19 points, six rebounds and six assists for Ukraine, which was in the quarterfinals for the first time.
"We were completely lost in the second quarter," said Viacheslav Kravtsov, Ukraine's NBA center. Lithuania won the European title in 2003 and was bronze medalist at the 2010 worlds but has not made the podium in Europe since the 2007 bronze and lost in the quarterfinals at home two years ago.
"The quarterfinal game is the most important and difficult in a tournament and now the big pressure is off," forward Martynas Pocius said. Lithuania, trailing by one at the end of the third quarter, went on a 15-0 run at the start of the final quarter and held Italy scoreless for nearly six minutes to decide the game.
"I can't say anyone controlled the game until we found our strong positions and used them," Lithuania coach Jonas Kazlaukas said. "The fourth quarter was the key," Pocius said. "We did a pretty good job defending against the 3-point shot and in rebounding."
Lithuania had a big size advantage over Italy and it was center Donatas Motiejunas who had a pair of important consecutive layups in his team's run in the fourth. Since a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, Italy has not been able to reach the quarterfinals in any major competition, and failed to qualify for the last two Olympics and last world championship. It missed the 2009 Europeans as well and finished 17th two years ago.
"They destroyed us in the low post at the start of the fourth, they have too much size. When you are tired they can use the size for easy baskets," Italy coach Simone Pianigiani said. Earlier, Slovenia earned a place in next year's World Cup by beating Serbia 92-74.
Slovenia will play for fifth place and Serbia for seventh on Saturday. Ukraine and Italy will decide on Friday which of them will meet Slovenia. Seventh place will be enough for a slot at the World Cup since host Spain is a direct qualifier and is already in the European semifinals. The top six teams in the tournament aside from Spain qualify.