Boban Marjanovic was the big difference -- literally and figuratively -- for Serbia in their FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament game against the Philippines on Thursday.
Marjanovic, the Dallas Mavericks center, made all the big baskets down the stretch in Serbia's 83-76 victory that assured their spot in the semifinals of the qualifiers. He finished with 25 points on 12-of-18 shooting, and his tough fallaway jumper with 36 seconds to go ended the Philippines' hopes of a comeback.
Ange Kouame had the unenviable assignment of guarding Marjanovic for most of the game. One of the best defenders in the collegiate ranks in the Philippines, even Kouame could do little against the 7-foot-3 Marjanovic once he got to his spot.
"It was super tough," said Kouame, who at 23 is nine years younger than the NBA veteran. "I mean, that was a battle for me."
The Philippines had their moments of success against Marjanovic, and they did their best to push him out to the perimeter where he was less comfortable. They also tested him defensively, and at one point, Gilas guard RJ Abarrientos drew Marjanovic on a switch and fearlessly fired a three-pointer over the Serbian center.
But they had no answer for him in the end game. Marjanovic scored on dunks and layups, and even when pushed farther from the basket, he hit a clutch jump shot to keep Serbia in control.
"We went to battle. I mean, he's tall, he's long, he has a huge wingspan. So getting rebounds, defensive rebounds, and keeping him out of the paint was the biggest priority for me," said Kouame, who credited his teammates for helping him in his task.
"The outcome, it is what it is," he added. "But this is a great learning experience, and I will learn from it."
"I'll try to picture it and get it better for the next couple of players like him that I'm gonna play against. So this is a great experience."
For Gilas Pilipinas captain Isaac Go, competing against a player of Marjanovic's caliber showed them what it took to reach the highest levels of basketball.
"You can see why he's on the NBA level," said Go of Marjanovic. "You can see how he leads his team, he controls the defense… He can pass the ball, actually."
"So it shows that is an NBA-caliber play and that's now like one of our standards to say okay, we've seen what it takes to reach EuroLeague, Serbian MVP to NBA," he added.
Before his heroics against Gilas Pilipinas, Marjanovic also came up big for Serbia against the Dominican Republic in their first game of the qualifiers.
Serbia had a slim 67-66 advantage against the Dominican Republic after three quarters, but Marjanovic sparked their breakaway in the fourth quarter. He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds as Serbia registered a 94-76 victory.
Igor Kokoškov, head coach of Serbia, said Marjanovic's presence was crucial both on and off the court for a Serbian team that is missing several key players, including reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets.
"I'm very happy that Boban, first of all, his presence here, the fact that he's playing for the national team," said Kokoškov. "He's a good voice, good energy. We know, he's unbelievable nature and such a positive guy."
"So he's a very unique player and we are fortunate as a program to have Boban playing for us this summer."