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France holds off Lithuania for third

Nicolas Batum scored 27 points on 8-for-12 shooting to power the France offense. Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

MADRID -- If basketball had the equivalent of soccer's penalty shootout, it would look, and feel, a lot like the conclusion of Saturday's bronze-medal playoff at the FIBA Basketball World Cup at the Palacio de los Deportes in Madrid.

France led Lithuania 86-84 when Adas Juskevicius went to the foul line for a bonus shot with 16.6 seconds remaining. It dropped successfully. Seventeen more free throws would follow in a test of will and nerve before, eventually, Les Bleus secured third place with a 95-93 defeat of their European rivals.

"The last 15 seconds felt like 15 years," French coach Vincent Collet acknowledged. Yet his side survived, claiming its first global medal, against expectations, against the odds, confounding the predictions that the absence of their leading light would condemn them to an early exit.

Except Tony Parker was never far away through this Spanish run. "Every day he called me or texted me, every day," revealed Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, who scored a game-high 27 points. "He was following us every step of the way, saying he's proud of us, and he can't wait until next year."

The precise contents of the motivational messages sent from the Spurs guard were classified, Boris Diaw added with a smile. "He was really happy that we went out there and played like that," confirmed Parker's long-time running mate for club and country.

Yet this felt like even more of an accomplishment without his kind of critical assist that helped land France's first-ever international prize at EuroBasket 2013. That, with Alexis Ajinca and Nando de Colo also elsewhere, new names such as Utah Jazz rookie Rudy Gobert and Spanish-based point guard Thomas Heurtel, who was ice cool at the conclusion, have stepped up and been counted.

"Our main goals are for Team France, not talking about names or about individuals" underlined Diaw, the team's captain. "It's that France plays at a high level in the international game. That's what we've been trying to build for a few years now, and I'm happy to accomplish that.

"We didn't want to sit back this summer and not compete or just show up. We wanted to do something. That's why Vincent is so proud of the team: We play good basketball as Team France."

There were spells where France more closely resembled the side whose inattentive defense cost them the chance of a final spot against Serbia less than 24 hours before, rather than the resilient squad that broke Spanish hearts in the quarterfinals.

In the third quarter, they were on the ropes, allowing Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas to throw his weight around in the middle as he bullied his way toward claiming 25 points and nine rebounds.

However, slowly but assuredly, the Lithuanians were put under pressure with Diaw and Heurtel inspiring a 9-0 run that put their side in front for good.

One foul, then two free throws, became a pattern to repeat, until a miss from Jonas Maciulis with a second remaining gave France the green light to celebrate.

"We missed one or two, but they missed a few, but we did our job," Batum beamed. "It was huge for us, for French basketball, for the whole country."

It was the second successive summer that the Lithuanians' run had ended in a loss to Les Bleus. In Slovenia 12 months before, they could at least grasp the consolation of a silver medal. This time, there was nothing but memories to retain as a souvenir.

Fourth place, perhaps, is the more agonizing of all outcomes.

"The differences were a couple of points we missed," Valanciunas declared. "We needed to make a couple of easy layups to win, but we can't change that now."

Next year, France will have a fresh ambition, and Parker will likely be back to head its assault.

The country will host the knockout stages of EuroBasket 2015. Accomplishing what Spain could not here, and becoming champions at home, would be an achievement beyond compare.

And Collet will leave the door open to Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah to make his return to the lineup for the first time since 2011.

"We have a habit with the French team to change the interior of the roster every year, except from the four spot where Boris signed a 20-year contract," he smiled. "So why not Joakim next year?

"But when we're talking about France, we want to get the best team possible because we know it's very difficult to win a championship at home.

"It's been proved this year, over the last few years, there's been no team being the host and the champion. ... We want to be the first one for a long time."

Something new to shoot at.