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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Women Take Basketball Gold

APA jubilant Russian team celebrating its victory over Spain in the final of the European Women's Basketball Championship in Chieti, Italy, on Sunday night.
CHIETI, Italy -- Russia held off a strong Spanish comeback to win the final of the European Women's Basketball Championship 74-68 in Italy on Sunday night. Belarus survived a furious comeback by Latvia to win the bronze medal match 72-63.

Ilona Korstin led Russia with 18 points and seven rebounds, while Tatyana Shchegoleva scored 14.

Russia nearly blew a 20-point halftime lead, as Spain clawed its way back from a 44-24 deficit to trail 69-65 in the final minute. Spain was led by Amaya Valdemoro, who poured in 26 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Valdemoro could have trimmed the deficit to just two with 21 seconds left, but she missed her lay-up and Russia triumphed by six.

"This is a big relief and I am very happy," said Russia center Maria Stepanova, who was voted to the all-tournament team after scoring eight points and hauling down 10 rebounds.

The victory has capped a great summer for Russian basketball, which won the European Men's Championship in Madrid three weeks, also against Spain. This is the first year that the same two countries have competed in the European men's and women's finals.

The win qualifies Russia's women for next year's Beijing Olympics. Spain will now join bronze medal winners Belarus, fourth-placed Latvia and the fifth-placed Czech Republic in a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament.

"I knew my team was going to react because throughout the tournament and in the past, we've shown a lot of heart and pride," Spanish coach Evaristo Perez said.

"It's a pity we reacted too late. Russia is a very difficult team to play against. There is a physical difference and they are a great team."

Valdemoro, who is a teammate of Stepanova, Korstin and Olga Arteshina at CSKA Moscow, said: "I told my teammates in the Russian team they always play in these types of games but for us it's so difficult just to get here.

"We're not the biggest team, like I've said so many times before, but what we do have is a lot of heart."

Russia won the gold medal four years ago in Greece and finished runners-up to the Czechs in Turkey in 2005.

After taking silver at the 2006 World Championship in Brazil, they entered this tournament as favorites.

They lost to Serbia in the qualifying round, but underlined their championship credentials with a decisive win over Spain. Russia accounted for Lithuania in the quarterfinal and Latvia in the semifinal, while Spain got past Belgium and Belarus in those matches respectively.

Belarus, appearing in their first European Championship, beat Latvia in the bronze medal match. Anatoli Buyalski's team led by as many as 25 points late in the third quarter but had to hold on for dear life on Ieva Kublina's four-point play, as the Baltic side closed the gap to 61-57 with 3:29 to go.

That capped a 20-4 run that had the Chieti crowd, including Latvia's President Valdis Zhtlers, on its feet.

After Belarus' Nataliya Trafimava and Latvia's Jansone exchanged baskets, the team from Minsk did just enough to preserve victory.

The outstanding point guard Natalie Marchanka found Tatyana Troina open in the corner with 2:31 to go, and the deadly three-point shooter struck for a 66-59 lead, after which Belarus pulled away.

"We are writing the history of Belorussian basketball," said Marchanka, who finished with nine points, seven assists and three rebounds.

"I'm very proud of my team and I am just happy to be a part of it.

The pill was tough to swallow for Latvia, who won over most neutrals at the tournament with the dynamic play of point guard Gunta Basko and shooting guard Anete Jekabsone-Zogota.

In the battle for fifth place, the Czechs thrashed Lithuania 93-54 to earn the last European place on offer at the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament.