by Alan Paul

China’s 85-75 OT loss to Spain was a crushing and heartbreaking blow. They dominated for almost the entire game, before seeing it all slip away in the fourth quarter and overtime in the face of stout defensive pressure and their own errors.

“Today is quite a disappointment for us,” forward Li Nan said afterwards. “When we had quite a good chance to win, we didn’t grab it. Today I feel really disappointed by the result.”

A visibly deflated coach Sarunas Kazlauskas was more to the point: “This game we should win but we don’t win.”

As soon as the basketball pairings were announced, Chinese press complained that their team was matched up with arguably the three best squads in the world – the US, Spain and Greece. They lost badly to the US in a supercharged environment and the question tonight was how would they respond to another formidable opponent on the heels of that – timidly after being on the wrong end of a second half dunkathon by Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and company? Or would they gain confidence after playing in such an intense environment?

It was soon clear that the latter would be the case. China hung close in the first quarter, finishing it down two and then turned up the heat. Throughout the second and third quarters, China was the aggressor in every phase of the game, closing out passing lanes and battling through screens on defense, beating Spain to lose balls and moving the ball with crisp authority leading to open looks on offense. Spain, meanwhile, looked rattled by the large and boisterous crowd. They played hard but sloppy, forcing shots and looking out of sync. Considered the greatest threat to a US gold, they did not look the part as China took a 52-37 lead.

Spain began to right their ship, but the Chinese weathered the storm, only to see it all start to slip away in the fourth quarter. Still, the Chinese almost pulled it off. As Spain rallied furiously, Yao Ming looked a step slow and guard Liu Wei, whose shooting and leadership had helped build the lead, began to misfire. But Wang Zhi Zhi, China’s first player to reach the NBA, kept them in the game with two clutch shots, both of them assisted by future Laker Sun Yue.

This gave China a 72-70 lead, until Marc Gasol (Pau’s brother, who will join the Memphis Grizzlies this season) hit the shot of the game, a difficult, twisting layup under extreme defensive pressure by Yao to tie the game and send it into overtime. With the wind at their back, Spain inevitably pulled away, outscoring China 13-3 in the extra period. Now 0-2, they face an uphill climb to make it to the medal round.

“For three quarters we played good… with discipline and defense,” a Kazlauskas said. “I don’t know why we could not get this game into pocket. We made bad decisions and turnovers and finally we lost this game.”

China’s failure was certainly not the result of a lack of effort by the crowd, which rooted loud, hard and long. Though you could almost hear the air let out of the building as Spain charged back into the game, the fans never gave up. Down six with 1:14 left in OT the crowd rallied for one more round of “Zhong Guo Jia Yoh!” and was still far from giving up. Alas, their team could not pull off the improbable upset.

Afterwards, Spain coach Aito Garcia Reneses admitted that his team underestimated China, a fault that very nearly cost them the game. “After we beat Greece and China lost very badly to the USA, we thought it could be a very easy game for us and that was obviously a big mistake. The Chinese team was very aggressive and very strong on both ends, and we did not show what we had. They were formidable opponents for us.”

Still, despite playing well, the Chinese let a winning game slip away and they may have a tough time recovering from this loss. “I saw the improvement of our team,” said Li Nan. “But we recognize the gap between the gap between other strong international teams and China.”