LONDON — The hugs and high-fives were hard and heartfelt. Even Russia’s postgame celebration was physical as coach David Blatt got a bloody nose.
“I was knocked down, but not knocked out,” he said.
The Russians are still standing, too.
Dismissed entering these Olympics, they can no longer be ignored.
Andrei Kirilenko scored 19 points and Timofey Mozgov added 17 as Russia, overlooked among the top medal contenders before arriving in England, moved into the semifinals of the men’s basketball tournament with an 83-74 win over Lithuania on Wednesday.
Given little chance of being among the final four teams, the Russians will play Spain, a 66-59 winner over France, in Friday’s semis — one win from an unexpected shot at gold.
“This was a big step for our country, for our basketball,” said forward Sergei Monya.
Russia won its group in the preliminary round, beating medal favorites Brazil and Spain in the process. Those tight wins gained the Russians a few believers, but most international hoop experts didn’t think they belonged in the same company with the Americans, Argentina, Spain, France or Brazil.
“We’ve been outside that circle,” Blatt, who was born in the U.S., said earlier in the tournament.
Russia’s now on the inside.
“We’re thankful to win,” Blatt. “It was not easy. We had to play our heart out.”
After trailing by 14, Lithuania was within six in the fourth when Monya, who played for both Portland and Sacramento, hit a 3-pointer for Russia, and Kirilenko, who signed a two-year, $20 million contract with Minnesota this summer, converted a three-point play with 1:42 remaining.
Lithuania, which pushed the U.S. deep into the fourth quarter before losing 99-94 on Saturday, was still within five in the final minute. But a bad turnover and two missed free throws helped Russia go on a game-ending 6-0 run.
On the court afterward, players from two nations who used to play under the Soviet Union’s red flag, embraced.
“Tough game,” Kirilenko said. “They had a great game, we love them. But unfortunately they had to play us. We wish they were in a different quarterfinal.”
Rimantas Kaukenas scored 19 and Darius Songaila 15 for Lithuania, which has not won a medal since getting bronze in 2000.
“If we wanted to win today, we probably had to have 10 or less turnovers,” said Lithuania coach Kestutis Kemzura, whose team had 14 miscues. “Russia has shown great basketball in this tournament.”
With size and depth, the Russians, who have never won an Olympic medal in basketball as an independent nation, will be a handful for whomever plays them next.
Russia, involved in three games decided by three points or less in the preliminary round, let a 14-point lead in the third quarter dwindle to two early in the fourth when Lithuania 7-foot center Jonas Valanciunas, who will play for Toronto next season, scored inside to cut the Russians’ lead to 57-55.
But Monya hit a pair of 3-pointers and Russia’s frontline made it tough for Lithuania to get off any shots close to the basket. The Russian big men contained Lithuania’s Linas Kleiza, who scored just four points on 1 of 7 shooting.
Despite being cheered on by their flag-waving, face-painted, whistling fans — the international game’s version of Duke’s Cameron Crazies — Lithuania started poorly. The Lithuanians made just 3 of 16 shots and scored nine points during a dreadful performance in the first quarter.
Russia built nine-point lead and appeared in control. But known for their discipline, the Russians, who beat Lithuania in two exhibition games leading into London, got a little too carefree.
“Stop settling for jump shots,” screamed Blatt.
But it was too late, and Lithuania began chipping away with Songaila doing the dirty work down low. The former Washington Wizards forward scored 10 points in the second quarter as Lithuania pulled within 32-27 at the break.