DENG LEADS GB TO PROMISED LAND

Great Britain defeated Bosnia-Herzegovina 94-85 in an overtime thriller at the Echo Arena to qualify for next summer’s Eurobasket finals in Lithuania.

Luol Deng hit an international career-high 38 points with Pops Mensah-Bonsu adding an immense 32 points and 21 rebounds when their team needed it most, the dynamic duo delivering in spades to book a showdown with Europe’s best in 12 months time.

“When you have a big game, you want your best players to be at their best,” said GB coach Chris Finch. “And we had that. Everyone chipped in. The scoring might look tremendously imbalanced but everybody went out there.”

They needed it every last effort.

In a battle that lasted from start to finish in Liverpool, advantages were traded back and forth. Everything was earned, not given. But eventually Finch’s men took the ultimate spoils.

“One of our goals this summer on the first day of training camp was to prove ourselves all over again,” Finch revealed. “We wanted to prove that two years ago wasn’t a fluke.”

They’ll now get that chance. But, as it has been throughout this campaign, it was hard work.

Ratko Varda quickly imposed himself in the middle for the guests. He hit Bosnia’s first ten points as the teams traded leads 12 times in the first quarter, ending it deadlocked at 15-15.

There was little to choose. Britain needed more variation in their offense after being ruthlessly exposed in Macedonia three days before. But with 2 minutes left in the second, still only three GB players had scored.

Still, Deng, as intense as he has been this entire campaign, was making free throws. Mensah-Bonsu was grabbing every conceivable rebound, throwing one back in as if it were a cat into a bin.

Ogo Adegboye, asked to carry more responsibility at point guard, added his name to the scoring column with two free throws that extended the gap to 37-29.

Deng was fired up. The Bulls forward has not been happy at the latitude his opponents have been given to foul him during these qualifiers. More sinned against than a sinner, he earned himself a technical by protesting another non-call, Kenan Bajramovic making both free throws as the Bosnians closed to 39-36 at half-time.

GB emerged to warm-up with a new face taking the rebounds. Detroit Pistons guard Ben Gordon, in town to watch the side he hopes to join next summer, had earlier pledged his allegiance to the cause.

Ben Gordon joined the Team GB line up for the National Anthem

“When I came back two summers ago, I found a half of my family I hadn’t seen since I was about nine,” said Gordon, who received warm applause when introduced to the crowd of 2,734. “It was good to see them. That’s another reason I enjoy coming here is to reconnect with my family here and my fans here.”

Sitting behind the GB bench, he could take in the tension with qualification just 20 minutes away. Bosnia started the third with a 6-0 run to reclaim the initiative. The lead changed hands three times before Deng hit consecutive three-pointers, toying with his opponent on the latter, edging left, then right, before rising to convert.

“In the third quarter, I had a rhythm,” he said. “I just had to make free-throws.”

Pops Mensah-Bonsu had a monster night

Finch’s men were far from perfect but they were playing through their flaws. When Drew Sullivan missed his initial shot, his put-back didn’t drop. Or the next. But the new signing of the Mersey Tigers doesn’t lack motivation. Number four crept over he hoop. And when Deng added another to extend the gap to 61-55, the visitors burned a time-out.

As they pressed back, Kieron Achara produced a telling block and Mensah-Bonsu a precious steal as their side went into the fourth period 64-57 ahead.

The drama was far from over. Henry Domercant’s trey capped a 10-3 start to the fourth that forced Finch to burn a time-out to stem the tide.

It energised his players. Achara flagged up the crowd furiously, the cheerleader-in-chief. Mensah-Bonsu hit four successive GB points to restore the lead and then Reinking, given license to shoot, converted from long-range.

But every time, Britain edged ahead, Bosnia hit another three, dropping the bomb and exploding the tensions. Domercant hit 2/3 from the line after being fouled by Mensah-Bonsu with 2.09 before Bajramovic hit yet another three to put his side up 79-78 with less than 90 seconds remaining.

Deng then fluffed his lines, missing two from the line. The angst and agony grew when Kenan Bajramovic converted off the glass that left Finch with little option but to call time-out.

GB rode their luck. Adegboye was fortunate to see the ball roll out off his foot and then Bosnia missed when they had the chance to sink a dagger.

Deng hit 1/2 from the line but Mensah-Bonsu grabbed a priceless rebound and then earned two foul shots of his own.

“Pops was amazing,” said Finch. “His offensive rebounding has won us a bunch of games. He was just not to be denied. It was world-class – as good as anyone’s ever done in the NBA.”

With 18.7 seconds left in regulation, he stood tall. Draining both to tie the game at 81-81, it set up a thrilling conclusion. In unison, there was silence then relief as Milan Milosovic’s last-second off-balance shot missed its mark to send the game into overtime.

Breaths were inhaled. Then some.

Bajramovic would put the Bosnias in front once more but even though Deng missed three free throws in quick succession, he would not be denied.

Mensah-Bonsu put GB ahead for good with a single free throw with 3 minutes to go then Reinking hit a jumper.

The American-born veteran made grabbed as valuable a steal as he ever has that was converted by Deng, who added 13 rebounds and 4 steals.

Mensah-Bonsu signalled the celebrations could begin with an emphatic dunk and when Deng added another, the ovation commenced.

With 6.9 seconds left, Pops left fly again, his cry unmasking his joy.

Lithuania beckons.

Drew Sullivan was a huge defensive presence

“For us to be successful, we need to be playing in these kinds of competitions every time they come around,” said GB skipper Sullivan. “We were a bit gutted when we didn’t get the wild card for the worlds but that motivated us to get back to another European Championships and prove that we are a team that can consistently get there.

“This is hugely satisfying.”

GB finish up their campaign on Sunday on the road Ukraine in Dnipropetrovsk against Ukraine, who fell out of contention with an 83-75 loss in Hungary.

Notes: Finch congratulated GB women on their programme and admitted seeing them qualify earlier at the Echo Arena had sparked his team. “If you look at GB basketball, England basketball, Scottish basketball, we’ve had a kick-ass summer. We’re putting some great results out there and we should tip our hat to ourselves. We’ve come with the mentality that we should win every time, we step on the floor.”

GB are the only qualifying team confirmed at Lithuania 2011 with one round of games left. Groups A and C are still open.

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