By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Bitter Balkan rivals Serbia and Croatia booked two of the last three remaining Olympic basketball berths after contrasting wins over their respective rivals on Saturday.
The Serbians qualified for the first time as an independent nation with a 108-77 rout of Puerto Rico, while Croatia beat Italy 84-78 in an overtime thriller after the game was held up for 15 minutes when the electronic scoreboard malfunctioned.
France meet Canada in the final of the Manila tournament on Sunday for the last remaining berth. Host nation Brazil, champions United States, Argentina, Australia, Venezuela, Nigeria, China, Spain and Lithuania qualified earlier.
Having edged Puerto Rico 87-81 in the group stage of the week-long tournament, Serbia found another gear against the same opposition in the final as they were roared on by 17,123 home fans in the Belgrade Arena.
The visitors scored the first three points of the game but the Serbians sank the next 24 en route to a 37-4 run which propelled them into a 60-27 halftime lead.
The home side stayed aggressive after the interval as shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic finished with 26 points and power forward Nikola Jokic added 23.
The 21-year old Jokic, who enjoyed a fine rookie NBA season with the Denver Nuggets, shone throughout the event in his maiden appearance for Serbia and was voted the tournament's most valuable player.
"The past year of my life and career have been everything I could wish for and I really have to thank my Serbia team mates for helping me blend in seamlessly," Jokic told Reuters.
"We will go to Rio determined to play our hearts out in every game and I honestly can't wait to start the build-up after a few days (of) rest," he said.
While Serbia won emphatically, Croatia punched their ticket to Rio in dramatic style.
Having suffered a 67-60 reverse by the Italians in the group stages, Croatia turned the tables on the tournament hosts in Turin and won thanks to yet another majestic performance by their Brooklyn Nets shooting guard Bojan Bogdanovic.
Bogdanovic netted 26 points, including 12 of 13 from the foul line, as the Croatians grabbed a series of crucial offensive boards in a dramatic finish.
Playmaker Krunoslav Simon chipped in with 21 points for Croatia and versatile power forward Dario Saric added 18 to go with 13 rebounds.
(Editing by Andrew Both)