Veterans' efforts not enough to thwart Croatia

England's quest to qualify for this summer's European Championship finals ended last night, when the unbeaten Group A leaders Croatia beat them 82-72 in their penultimate game of the semi-final round in Dubrovnik.

England's quest to qualify for this summer's European Championship finals ended last night, when the unbeaten Group A leaders Croatia beat them 82-72 in their penultimate game of the semi-final round in Dubrovnik.

Only two months ago England had high hopes of qualifying the first time since 1981 after victories over Switzerland and Slovakia. But a tame 74-69 surrender to Latvia at Coventry in November left England needing to win both their remaining games. Instead, the Latvians will go to the finals in Turkey with Croatia, while England must beat Hungary at Coventry's Skydome on Saturday to avoid pre-qualifying for the 2003 finals.

The veterans Roger Huggins and Steve Bucknall, who will both retire from international basketball after Saturday's game, led an injury-weakened England team with 21 and 20 points respectively, supported by 12 from Yorick Williams.

A determined and resilient defensive performance, illuminated by two stirring fightbacks in the second and fourth quarters, prevented the Croatians from pulling clear until the final two minutes.

England came back from 38-28 down to trail 40-38 at the half, before Josip Sesar, Mate Skelin and Veljko Mrsic inspired a 9-0 start to the third. Another fightback, capped by two free throws from Huggins, brought England back to 62-62, but the Croats regained control and a three-pointer from Ratko Vujcic gave them a 75-65 lead to put the result beyond doubt.

England's 7ft Andy Betts, of AEK Athens, collected his first foul in the opening minute and fouled out with just under five minutes to play, although Newcastle Eagles' seven-footer Ian Whyte came off the bench to add eight points.

Leading scorers: England Huggins 21, Bucknall 20, Williams 12. Croatia Sesar 18, Skelin 16, Mrsic 14.

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