WUHAN, China (AFP) - All-Star Nikola Jokic was ejected for "a stupid reaction" in the third quarter as strongly fancied Serbia were stunned 81-69 by Spain to blow the Basketball World Cup wide open on Sunday (Sept 8).
Led by Ricky Rubio of the Phoenix Suns, Spain set up a quarter-final meeting with surprise packages Poland on Tuesday while Serbia will need to pick themselves up quickly for Argentina on the same evening.
Spain and European rivals Serbia had already qualified for the last eight in China but Group J supremacy and a supposedly easier game in the next round was at stake.
Serbia, the reigning world and Olympic silver medallists behind the Americans, had looked imperious in their previous four matches, but this loss will raise questions about their title credentials.
Coach Sasha Djordjevic said Spain were the better team and refused to use the loss of Jokic - turfed out after yelling at a referee - as an excuse.
But he hard harsh words for his key man, saying: "I did not like the stupid reaction of my player, who should be on the floor.
"We can even lose with him, why not if the other team is better? But he should stay on the floor and be one of the leaders."
In one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the tournament so far, Spain surged back from a slow start in the first quarter to lead by eight points at half-time in Wuhan.
Serbia, who had looked the chief threat to the young roster of reigning champions the US, were rattled for the first time in China and on their way towards a first defeat.
Midway through the third quarter, their chances of making a comeback suffered a fatal blow when Denver Nuggets' Jokic - one of the World Cup's biggest names - was thrown out.
The 24-year-old was irritated initially by the close attentions of Spain's defence and made his feelings clear to the officials.
'WE NEED HIM'
The plain-speaking Djordjevic said he had already spoken to Jokic about the incident.
"We don't have time for long meetings, he knows (he was wrong)," said Djordjevic.
"He's a tough kid, one of the greatest right now, (so) we need him on the floor.
"I hope it won't happen again and this is a moment for him to grow."
Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings was again key for Serbia, keeping them within range of Spain with 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
Rubio racked up 19 points for the Spanish while veteran Marc Gasol had six rebounds and six assists.
"They really kicked us today," said Bogdanovic, who has been in sparkling form at the World Cup and was unlucky to be on the losing side.
Spain coach Sergio Scariolo was full of praise for the 27-year-old Bogdanovic, calling him "ridiculous" and "an unbelievable player".
Argentina topped Group I - and teed up a meeting with Serbia - after a dominant 91-65 victory over Poland. Both had already reached the last eight.