ATHENS (FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament for Men) – Puerto Rico made seven three-pointers in the third quarter and then withstood a brave fight-back by Slovenia to advance to the semi-finals of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Puerto Rico got a game-high 17 points from Carlos Arroyo in the 81-70 victory.
Next up for Manolo Cintron’s team are Greece, unless New Zealand are able to upset the qualifying tournament hosts later Friday.
“After our loss to Croatia, we had a really good practice,” Puerto Rico guard Jose Barea said.
“People were fighting with each other, and that’s a good sign for us.
“Then we had a good start to the game and everyone played well.”
Puerto Rico are always full of surprises and they offered up one that goes by the name of Javier Mojica against Slovenia.
The 23-year-old, one of the last to make the team, hardly played in the Group D games against Cameroon and Croatia but was one of the first players to come off the bench for Cintron on Friday and boy did he deliver!
The 1.90m guard made a couple of timely three-pointers and finished with nine points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes.
Peter John Ramos, the giant center, also scored all eight of his points in the second half – six in the fourth quarter.
His two biggest shots came in the last five minutes.
With the shot clock winding down, an errant pass fell into his hands and from 15 feet, the 2.20m center buried a shot for a 70-63 lead.
With 1:51 to go and Puerto Rico leading 75-67, Arroyo made sure to use up most of the time on the shot clock before hurling a desperation shot from long range.
The ball missed badly, but Ramos snatched the ball out of the air and laid it in all in one motion just before the buzzer sounded for a 77-67 advantage.
In the first half, Puerto Rico did not control the boards but they were still able to open a nine-point lead thanks in large part to the surprising play of Mojica and forward Carmelo Lee.
Mojica caught a pass on the low block and scored over Slovenia guard Goran Dragic, and after Lee buried a three-pointer, Mojica struck from long range to make it 24-15.
Slovenia hit right back.
One of the newcomers to their set-up, Nebojsa Joksimovic, nailed a three and Slokar followed with a tip-in.
A Zupan three-pointer closed the gap to 27-25 and then young Emir Preldzic, who was so impressive against Canada, levelled the scores at 27-27 with a jump shot.
The game wound up going to half-time 34-34.
In the first half, Slovenia got excellent play from the big men with Uros Slokar (nine), Rasho Nesterovic (eight) and Miha Zupan (seven) accounting for 24 of their 34 points.
After Puerto Rico’s avalanche of three-balls in the third quarter and early in the fourth, Slovenia looked to be in trouble.
Jose Barea’s penetration and lay-up extended the Puerto Rican advantage to 61-52.
Zupan sparked a 9-2 run to make it 63-61 with 6:18 remaining, though, and Slovenia had a chance to tie or go in front when Preldzic left his feet on the baseline with nowhere to go and his pass ended up in the hands of Barea.
Ayuso went to the other end, drove into the lane and made an acrobatic lay-up while also drawing a foul by the 20-year-old Preldzic.
He made the free throw, taking the lead to 65-61.
Ayuso made two more with 4:57 remaining for a 68-61 advantage.
Ramos then hit his jumper before the shot-clock expired and was also there to tap in Arroyo’s miss almost immediately after for a 72-63 lead.
Slovenia got no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
Puerto Rico finished 10 of 18 from three-point range compared to seven of 24 for Slovenia.
Cintron’s team also did a much better job on the boards, out-rebounding Slovenia in the second half 13-11.
“Our mindset right now is to win one of our next two games,” Barea said.
If they do that, Puerto Rico, last year’s bronze-medal winners at the FIBA Americas Championship, will be at the Olympics.