Mark RALSTON / AFP
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Spain tipped off in an eerily empty arena due to a security scare but the 2012 silver medalists finally showed up on the court for an all-important first Olympic basketball win on Thursday, August 11.
After last-second losses in their first two games, Spain claimed a 96-87 win over Nigeria in a match-up of winless teams desperate for a "W", led by 16 points from veteran centre Pau Gasol.
In other Group B action, Argentina and Lithuania showed why they will both be tough to beat in the knockout phase, with Lithuania emerging 81-73 victors in one of the better-played contests so far.
Forward Mindaugas Kuzminskas led Lithuania with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting.
Spain and Nigeria tipped off with the 16,000-capacity venue in Rio's Olympic Park virtually empty after security forces initially prevented fans entering while they staged an apparent controlled explosion just outside.
"We heard the explosion. We didn't know exactly what it was. We just kind of looked around and said, 'What's going on?'" said Gasol.
"We thought maybe nobody came to watch the game."
Spain got yet another scare from the African underdogs, who led by a point to start the final period, fueled by an eventual 13 3-pointers including 7 from red-hot shooting guard Chamberlain Oguchi.
But balanced scoring down the stretch from Spain's veteran Olympians helped them dodge a potentially fatal third loss.
Spain is ranked number two in the world and was bridesmaid in the past two Games to the powerful USA squad of NBA stars.
"Nigeria just kept battling us, but we were able to get out of it. That was the firststep in the right direction," said Gasol, who joins the San Antonio Spurs for the coming season.
Spain is now 1-2 and still must face both the tough Argentines and Lithuania in its remaining preliminary-round games. Nigeria dropped to 0-3.
A low-scoring first half saw Lithuania lead Argentina 30-27 at the mid-way point, but things kicked into high gear from there.
Manu Ginobili, a former All-Star and 4-time NBA champ with the Spurs, scored 12 points in the first 4 minutes of the second half and Argentina went on to grab a 42-40 lead.
Both sides continued to pour in the buckets and the score was repeatedly tied down the stretch.
But Argentina's smaller veterans couldn't quite stop the big and quick Lithuanians, who were a force on the glass with 51 rebounds to Argentina's 29.
In the day's early game, Bojan Bogdanovic poured in 33 points as Croatia beat hosts Brazil 80-76, who were hoping to build on their thrilling upset of Spain two days earlier.
Croatia is now 2-1, and Brazil 1-2.
The USA is heavily favoured to win a third straight gold medal and opened by routing China and Venezuela.
But Australia tested them on Wednesday, briefly holding a fourth-quarter lead and making the Americans work for a 98-88 win that dented their aura of invincibility.
The Spain-Nigeria start was unaffected by the security issue and spectators were allowed in soon after the detonation. Arena officials declined comment on the matter.
There have been at least 3 controlled explosions of suspect items in Rio since the Olympics started. One was near the finish line of the cycling road race on Saturday. – Rappler.com