VILNIUS - It was the meeting of the two best basketball teams in the Baltics, and 11,000 spectators watched Zalgiris beat Lietuvos Rytas 81-75 at Vilnius' Siemens Arena on Jan. 22. But Zalgiris' third consecutive victory in the BBL was very close until the final buzzer:
The guests led 18-17 after the first quarter, thanks to Robert Pack's eight points. But Lietuvos Rytas came back strongly after the break and defended its advantage of 33-32 until half time.
Dainius Salenga, the 27-year-old forward, dominated the second half: He turned out to be Zalgiris' top scorer and made all of his 16 points in the third and fourth quarters. The game remained close and neither team managed to lead by more than four or five points.
At the end of the third quarter, Lietuvos Rytas was one point down (52-53). However, Salenga and Tanoka Beard started a late rally to take Zalgiris to a 72-65 lead with just three minutes to go. Tyrone Nesby succeeded with a triple, but Rytas' top scorer (21 points) could not prevent the home defeat of his team against its fiercest rival. Zalgiris' center Beard impressed the audience by grabbing 14 rebounds and scoring 10 points.
"How did we win? Perhaps Zalgiris is more tempered, especially after the last game with Barcelona. I am happy that the men played till the end and that luck did not let us down," said Zalgiris' coach, Antanas Sireika
The following day Zalgiris comfortably beat fellow Lithuanian side Sakalai 100-89 and is now number one in the BBL.
The biggest challenge for Zalgiris will be in the Euroleague. There are still three games left in the group phase and after the unfortunate defeat against Barcelona, Zalgiris must urgently win against Italy's Savolini on Jan. 27 in order to be one of the best 16 teams. Both Zalgiris and Savolini are fighting for a place in the last 16, while Barcelona and Maccabi Tel Aviv are all but assured of qualification.
One of the reasons why Lietuvos Rytas lost to Zalgiris was probably that forward Frederick House, the team captain, was absent due to a knee injury. Maybe some of the players were also thinking about the team's next major task in the ULEB Cup.
After winning its group with just one defeat in 10 matches, the Lithuanians have to travel to Greece on Feb. 1 to play Aris Thessaloniki. Aris won the FIBA Cup in 2003 and the side is supported by thousands of diehard fans. The second leg will take place in Vilnius a week later.
Latvia's BK Ventspils will be up against the German team RheinEnergie Cologne 's the team also won its group with a record of 9-1 and is still undefeated in the BBL. So both Baltic teams are top candidates to reach the ULEB Cup's final in Charleroi in April.