VILNIUS - Lithuanians around the world celebrated into the morning of Aug. 22 after their national basketball team defeated the U.S.A. in a close match that demonstrated the Baltic team's hoop-shooting mastery.
Crowds of people poured onto the streets of Lithuania in an all-night party that included music, singing and fireworks. Watering holes stayed open later than usual, and some establishments showed replays of the game.
Although most Lithuanians will only be content once their team is in the finals, finally beating the Dream Team was for many fans as good as the gold.
"It's the happiest day of my life," basketball legend and member of the 1988 Soviet gold-medal team, Rimas Kurtinaitis, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.
President Valdas Adamkus, who attended the game in Athens, won a case of American wine in a bet with U.S. Ambassador Stephen Mull.
The Americans led for most of the game, thanks to a spat of Lithuanian turnovers in the first quarter and strong rebounding on the offensive end of the court. In fact, the U.S. team, which lost its first Olympic match against Puerto Rico a few days earlier (since NBA players began to particiate in 1992), played its finest 40 minutes of the tournament to date, making less turnovers and more field goals.
But the Antanas Sireika-led club continued to display its superior outside shooting and textbook fundamentals, resisting a fourth-quarter surge by the Dream Team.
Captain Salius Stombergas sunk three free-throws in a row to keep the team within range, and then Sarunas Jasikevicius - the game's MVP - nailed three three-pointers, including a rare one worth four points after he was fouled.
In the end, the four-point difference between the two teams boiled down to Lithuania's dominance on the perimeter and Team U.S.A.'s in the paint.
"It's hard for them to play much better. It really comes down to being able to put the ball in the basket," Jasikevicius said.
True enough, the U.S. players made only 22 out of 33 free throws - something the original Dream Team would have never permitted - while the Lithuanians sunk 25 out of 31.
Otherwise, the Lithuanians shot 58 percent against the U.S.A.'s 48 percent, and the Balts made 13 three-pointers against the opponent's eight.
For Jasikevicius, 30, who missed the last-second shot against the Dream Team in the semifinals of the 2000 Olympic Games, and who was ignored by NBA scouts, the performance was particularly satisfying.
Still, he downplayed the victory afterward.
"This is, in a way, an incredible win, and in a way it doesn't mean anything," he said. "What does this mean if you don't win a medal? We beat the States. So what? We came here not to beat the States or any other team - we just came here to fight for the medal."