The rise of Finland's basketball team has been long in the making. Continual, incremental improvements in performance have culminated in this week's tumultuous scenes at Helsinki Arena, where the 'Wolf Pack' defeated France, Greece, Poland and Iceland to secure second spot in the group and a quarter final against Italy.
After the final game, an 83-79 victory over Iceland showcasing Finland's deep bench as many of the frontline stars rested up for the knockout stages, coach Henrik Dettmann addressed the fans who roared the team on this week.
"Without you we wouldn't be here," said Dettmann, who then requested that they join the team in Turkey for the next stage.
Markkanen making it
"Everyone who can go, should go to Istanbul," said Dettmann, who coached Istanbul team Besiktas in 2015. "I've lived there for a while. It's a wonderful city. Wonderful surroundings, wonderful culture."
One of the main attractions for Finns heading to the Bosphorus is Lauri Markkanen, the 2 metre 13 centimetre, 20-year-old star who was drafted by the Chicago Bulls this summer. He has averaged 22.6 points per game so far in EuroBasket—including some crucial, decisive plays at the end of the 90-87 win over Poland.
Markkanen has had a mixed reception in the US press since he was drafted by the Bulls, partly because the club traded their key player Jimmy Butler to get the Finnish youngster. His performances in EuroBasket, however, seem to have caught American eyes too.
'Lauri Markkanen is tearing it up in EuroBasket' was one of the gushing headlines published in US media, with the author suggesting that Markkanen might not be the bad pick many US observers had thought.
"Of course, it’s clear that the NBA players he will face starting in October are of a different caliber than most of the players participating in EuroBasket, but it’s also evident that Markkanen, who will likely have to fight the “weak” label given to European players, has the skills to hold his own," wrote Paolo Nuggetti of The Ringer.
He's now third in the points-scoring standings in the tournament, and before he leaves for the NBA Markkanen has a chance to take Finland further than they've ever been before in international competition.
Their current EuroBasket record was notched in 1967 when they finished sixth in a tournament held in Helsinki and Tampere. The best result abroad came in 1939, when they finished eighth in Lithuania. More recently they were the ninth best team in both 2011 in Lithuania, and again in Slovenia two years later.
Now they face an Italian team that has beaten them twice in practice matches over the summer, and coach Dettmann expects a similar challenge on Saturday in the quarter final.
"They play typical Italian basketball," said Dettmann. "They have shooting and inside strength, physicality and cunning."
The match will be shown live on Saturday via Yle Areena, starting at 6:45pm.