By Julio Chitunda
|Finland veteran Kimmo Muurinen featured only 15 minutes in Friday night's road win at Hungary but made a big impact - in every possible sense |
Finland are desperate for a return to European basketball's top competition.
After Friday's 75-73 win at Hungary in their first Additional Qualifying Round game for EuroBasket 2011, they are much closer to fulfilling that aim.
In the last 34 years, Finland have appeared in just one European Championship.
That was in 1995 in Athens, Greece, and they lost all six of their games in that competition to finish bottom of the tournament.
Last Friday, in the Hungarian region of Szolnok, the Finnish claimed a heart-stopping triumph over the hosts, a priceless road triumph that has left them tied with Portugal at 1-0 and Hungary at 0-2.
The top two sides from the AQR will reach the 24-team EuroBasket.
With a combative and ambitious team, the Finns believe it is time to make their fans proud.
"This is a unique opportunity for us," said Finland power forward Kimmo Muurinen to Basketball World News.
"We are not a regular team at the EuroBasket.
"So, to make it should be the biggest dream for basketball fans in our country.
"I would say it is a huge deal for us. It may create a good atmosphere in the country as we may become a mainstream sport in Finland."
Friday night's game was a breathtaking victory for the Finns, who managed a double-digit lead in the second half after being knotted at 37-37 at the break.
The Hungarians fought back and took the lead, but the game was again tied at 73-73 with a minute to go.
Ultimately it was Finn Gerald Lee's lay-up that sentenced the game.
"It was a tough game for us," the 30-year-old Muurinen admitted, adding that it was "a great result."
"There was no secret. We played a good defensive game. We managed two big stops in the last minute and then made the winning basket. Surely it was a great defensive game for us.
"Sure, we are pleased to be in this position. We are a good team and we feel good playing for the national team. It's a good position to be in."
Next up is Portugal at home on Monday night.
"We have played Portugal a few times," Muurinen said.
"Some of their players are familiar to us. We'll prepare for that game carefully."
Muurinen is one of the most experienced players in the Finnish squad.
On Friday he had 12 points, six of them from behind the arc, in just 15 minutes.
"I tried to play aggressive and have achieved a lot," he said.
"I am not sure if I'll be able to play 25 minutes at the same tempo."
Asked to describe his position in the team, Muurinen said: "No, it is not like a father figure. It is more to do with a group of friends who have fun playing basketball. Young players in the team always step in with good performances and make a huge impact in the team."
If Finland make it to the EuroBasket, they will be drawn either in Group A or Group C.
They would play against great players in either pool.
"Playing against guys I am used to seeing on TV, in newspapers, etc, it is a bit intimidating," he admitted.
"But I have learned that no matter who the opponent is, we'll always do our best.
"There is no pressure on us to play against the giants of Europe."