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Nigeria ends Dominican Republic’s Olympic dreams

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The Olympic dream for John Calipari and the Dominican Republic has come to an end.

The Dominicans came up one game short of their first-ever Olympic berth, losing to Nigeria 88-73 on Sunday in the third-place/fourth-place game of the 2012 FIBA Olympic World Qualifying Tournament in Caracas, Venezuela. Nigeria claimed the final spot at the 2012 Olympics in London with the win; the Dominican Republic heads home with a heartbreaking loss.

It was the closest the Dominicans have ever come to the Olympics.

“I want to thank all the fans of the Dominican Republic National Team and all the citizens of the Dominican Republic,” Calipari said. “The opportunity to coach your national team was an experience that I will remember forever. I grew from this experience, and my hope is the players and the federation benefited from our staff coaching the team the last two summers.”

Ike Diogu led the Nigerians with 25 points, including two key 3-pointers late in the game. The Dominicans tied it at 64-64 after trailing since the first quarter, but Diogu hit two 3-pointers from the left wing to take a 73-66 lead late in the fourth quarter.

The Dominicans would never recover.

Jack Michael Martinez just missed out on another double-double with 16 points and nine rebounds, and Francisco Garcia continued his torrid shooting with five 3-pointers and 17 points.

“I want to thank all of the players, who I’ve grown to respect and admire, for giving me the opportunity to coach them and letting me coach them in a way that can be a bit aggressive,” Calipari said.

Ultimately, it was Nigeria, ranked No. 21 in the FIBA world rankings, which would capture history. The Nigerians (33 of 64) outshot the Dominicans (36 for 74) and did just enough damage on the glass to overcome a poor performance at the free-throw line.

As the final seconds ticked down, the Dominican Republic players put their heads between their legs and tried to look away as the Nigerians celebrated in the stands. If anything, the noticeable heartbreak was a testament to how far the Dominicans have come under the guidance of Coach Cal.

Just a year ago the Dominican Republic was considered a long shot for the Olympics. Ranked No. 25 in the world, the Dominicans were supposed to be well outside the cut to make the 12-team Olympic games.

And then Coach Cal came along and changed the culture.

The Dominicans finished in third place in the 2011 FIBA Americas Championship, coming just one win short of qualifying for the Olympics last year. Calipari’s team followed that up with a Centrobasket 2012 gold-medal finish, the country’s third Centrobasket championship and first since 2004, and it was yet again on the doorstep of the Olympics after beating Macedonia in the quarterfinals in this last-chance qualifier.

No. 5 Lithuania denied the Dominicans a shot at history on Saturday, and Nigeria grabbed hold of it Sunday in the final chance to make the Olympics.

“The team played really hard and created a team atmosphere in a short period of time, which made me proud,” Calipari said. “More importantly, I hope this run created an atmosphere on the island where young athletes think about basketball now and not just baseball. The one thing with basketball, to be a player you must be ready to be educated. Not all will be NBA players, but they can change the cycle of their family through an education. If that alone touches a generation of young athletes, that would be worth more than a gold medal to me as a coach.”

Coach Cal will remain with the team this week for an exhibition game against the United States Olympic team on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET in Las Vegas. After that, he will hit the recruiting trail for his Kentucky basketball team.