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Dominican Republic within one win of first Olympics after stunning comeback

Box score and highlights

Left for dead after the second quarter, the Dominican Republic is now just one win away from its first-ever Olympic berth.

Trailing by 20 midway through the second quarter, John Calipari’s Dominican Republic team pulled off a stunning comeback to shock Macedonia (ranked No. 33 in the FIBA world rankings) 86-76 and secure a spot in the semifinals of the 2012 FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Caracas, Venezuela.

“I’ve coached a lot of basketball games in my life, a bunch of Final Fours and national championship games, and this will be one of those games that I remember,” Calipari said. “We were down 20 with a lot at stake and we still came back and won. I’m just really happy for the players and the team because they just showed a lot of pride, a lot of guts and a lot of toughness.”

Francisco Garcia led the comeback charge with 28 points, including four 3-pointers and a perfect 8-for-8 mark from the free-throw line. Jack Michael Martinez steadied the ship early when things weren’t going the Dominicans’ way, finishing with 14 points and 13 rebounds, and Al Horford rebounded from a rough first half to record 14 points and 15 boards.

“Al and Jack had 28 rebounds between them,” Calipari said. “We played the way we have to play to win.”

Now they’ll need to win just one more game over the next two days to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in Dominican Republic history.

The Dominicans will play Lithuania in the semifinals on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. Lithuania is ranked No. 5 in the world. A win Saturday puts the Dominicans in the Summer Games, which start at the end of the month.

Even with a loss Saturday, Friday’s victory over Macedonia assured the Dominicans a great shot at the Olympics, especially after the top team in the tournament, Greece (No. 4 in the world), fell to Nigeria in a surprising upset.

If the Dominicans were to lose Saturday, they would play the loser of Russia-Nigeria in the all-important third-place/fourth-place game. The winner of that game would head to the Olympics as well.

Francisco Garcia more than made up for his rough performance against Russia with a shooting clinic against Macedonia. (photo from FIBA)

How Calipari’s team is even in this position is still a shock.

Struggling to shoot the ball for the second game in a row, the Dominican Republic found itself behind 37-17 with four minutes left in the first half. At that point, Macedonia was stroking the 3, the Dominicans were laying bricks and Bo McCalebb was scoring at will for the Macedonians.

“We still started slow,” Calipari said. “I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing, what I’m saying or what they’re thinking because we can’t start this way the next game.”

Garcia started to heat up at the end of the half and got Coach Cal’s team within striking distance at 41-28.

The current Sacramento King was just getting started.

Garcia opened the second half with a 3-pointer and then Horford got his game going to get the Dominican Republic within two at the end of the third quarter.

Macedonia could do little to stop the momentum as Martinez tied it early in the fourth before Horford gave the Dominicans’ their first lead, 58-56, on a jumper.

Macedonia tied it at 62-62, but Garcia broke the game open for good with a 3-pointer with 6:30 to go.

“He went 0 for 100 the game before and he came up big in this game,” Calipari said. “That means you’re tough.”

The Dominicans’ would stretch their lead to as many as nine late in the game. Ronald Ramon’s 3-pointer to go up seven with 3:19 to play was the backbreaker.

“Ronald Ramon, he’s a killer,” Calipari said. “We know if the game is on the line he’ll make shots. He did again today.”