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When Spain needed him most, Pau Gasol delivered

LILLE, France -- Breaking through a silence filled with devastation and disappointment, a cry of euphoria. Amid shoulders slumped, even tears, two arms raised in defiance and satisfaction. Pau Gasol, for a few seconds alone, in the middle of the court, taking in a moment from within what was possibly his finest hour.

Forty points. Eleven rebounds. Carrying his team and his country on his broad shoulders. Spain into the final of EuroBasket 2015 -- and onto the 2016 Olympic Games. France, the hosts and defending champions, defeated 80-75 and deflated at the close of an overtime duel that surpassed even the forecasts that it would be a classic.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man from Barcelona. Aged 35 but still rooted firmly in his prime.

For the Chicago Bulls forward turned Spanish center and totem pole, leading his nation past their great rivals was an individual show of strength. He has shone before. His 19 points and 18 boards as the Los Angeles Lakers clinched his second NBA championship in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. His 24 points as Spain valiantly pushed the United States to the brink in the 2012 Olympic final.

But he had help then, and lots of it. Gasol is here without his brother Marc, minus Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro. Other than Sergio Rodriguez, none on his teammates scored into double figures. He shot 16 of 18 from the line and added three blocks. Without him, La Roja would have never made it past the first round in Berlin. Thanks to him, they will play for the gold medal Sunday against Serbia or Lithuania, against all expectations.

"I just prepared myself to play at my best level," said Gasol, now averaging a tournament-high 23.6 points per game. "I was trying to take advantage of the moment I'm going through and the good shape I'm in. Knowing that we have significant players that are not here this year, I knew I would have to carry a little more responsibility. But I try to bring inspiration and motivation to my teammates. That's what I try to do every single game."

Guarded by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, Gasol hinted at what was to come by contributing the opening score. Soon after, he made a nonchalant over-the-shoulder pass to Bulls running mate Nikola Mirotic. In front of a partisan European record crowd of 26,922, balls were fought for and rebounds prized. France was ahead 33-32 at halftime. Early in the third, Gobert rose for what seemed a certain slam. Rising vertically, Gasol sent the younger man back down to Earth.

Les Bleus, without a single free throw in the opening 20 minutes, felt the calls were not going their way. "It was tough," Gobert said. "The first half I tried not to foul. Because I knew they were calling everything. Pau had a couple of baskets on me. In the second half, I tried to turn it up but I got called every time. It was tough. The rules are different in Europe. It's hard to guard on the post. You can only use one arm. I can't really touch him. It's hard to guard. When you can't use your hands, he's almost unguardable."

Instead of Gobert, the French turned to Joffrey Lauvergne. Escaping free, the Denver Nuggets forward nailed back-to-back 3-pointers to cap a 13-1 run that had the hometown favorites 52-40 in front in the third. Watching the second attempt drop, Gasol's head sank. But he regrouped the Spanish once again.

"You have to give credit to the rest of the team for this," said their coach, Sergio Scariolo. "Not only for how they do because not only do they sometimes give up something of their own personal game to look for him.

"We have huge players. Look at Felipe Reyes with Real Madrid, they are used to having more possessions in their hands. But they are smart, unselfish, team-orientated and they give up for Pau because he is our go-to guy and our main strength."

And in the closing moments of the fourth, just when all seemed lost, he found a clean path through.

"The plan for what we wanted to accomplished was perfect for 37 minutes," France's captain Boris Diaw said. "The rest we didn't play as well. We didn't make the stops we wanted to make. We didn't play offensively the same way we did in the first 37 minutes. Sometimes these things can be fatal."

A 10-0 burst, capped by a dunk from Gasol, then a hook over Gobert, then a jump shot. It took a 3 from Nicolas Batum to draw France level at 66-66 with 14.1 seconds left of regulation. Improbably, Spain's giant was denied when Gobert did just enough to get in his way. "We tried to front him on the last possession," French coach Vincent Collet said. "We succeeded twice in a row, that's how we got overtime." But, he added, "we know how fantastic he is."

The French, of course, have an All-Star of their own. But Tony Parker has looked anything but. Making just 3 of 15 shots from the field in 40 minutes, he could not perform an act of heroism. If Diaw is this team's emotional leader, then the Spurs' guard sets the tone. It sounded flat and out of tune. And when he missed consecutive free throws in overtime, it did not feel out of character.

Neither, eventually, was Gasol's last decisive flourish. "We knew we were not going to stop him but we were trying to disrupt him as much as possible," Diaw declared. No dice. The last eight points of the game, the last two thrown down from above, as the upset was completed and triumph enjoyed.

People used to speak of Arvydas Sabonis or Drazen Petrovic as the best Europe has ever produced. Then came Dirk Nowitzki. Gasol is clearly in the conversation as well.

"Both of these guys are unbelievable players," said Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat, who played for Poland at these championships. "It depends what you need. They both can do everything. Pau can shoot 3s. Dirk can shoot 3s. Each one of them has got to have dropped 50 points in the league.

"Each one of them has had 20-and-20 games. Dirk won one championship. Pau won two, with Kobe [Bryant]. They're both up there with the best European players of all time. I'm not going to pick one because that would disrespect one. They're both great players."

Nowitzki, as hard as he tried, could never quite carry Germany to an international title. This, however, feels very much like EuroBasket 2005, when he took Deutschland, almost single-handedly, to the final with a threadbare supporting cast.

Spain might not walk away as champions come Sunday. Gasol, as in 2009, seems assured of strolling off with the MVP trophy. This was vindication. For showing up when others did not. For believing that miracles can happen -- even after Spain's overtime loss to France in the 2013 EuroBasket semifinal and their crushing defeat to the same opponent at the quarterfinal round of last summer's FIBA World Cup in Madrid.

"Last year was very hard for us, for our team," he said. "To lose in the quarterfinals. But it happens. And they deserved it. They worked harder than we did in that game. They wanted it more. We came out flat and we paid the price.

"So I wanted to win tonight. It wasn't payback or anything. It was just winning a very difficult game, a very challenging game against a team that was the tournament favorite, in front of their fans. That's very motivating for every player. I was truly motivated tonight as I have been throughout the tournament."

Spain has never needed him more. He did not disappoint. Arms aloft, reaching for the skies.