VILNIUS - It was a difficult last couple of weeks to be a Zalgiris fan. Fresh from a thrashing against their in-country nemesis, Zalgiris were hoping a new head coach would change their fortunes in their Euroleague finale. Unfortunately, the coaching switch didn't remedy the situation and their bid to end the Euroleague Top 16 on a winning note proved illusory. They were trounced 99 's 70 on March 30 by Greece's Olympicos, and ended winless in six games.
But the true misery started for Zalgiris on March 25, in the form of an embarrassing 30-point loss to their archrivals Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas in the Lithuanian Basketball League.
"After playing just a few days ago, we are psychologically and physically drained," said a distraught Antanas Sireika, Zalgiris' soon to be retired head coach.
His March 28 exit from Zalgiris was filled by Latvian Ainars Bagatskis, a former Zalgiris player in 2004 and 2005. Bagatskis left Riga Barons/LU, where he was a player-coach, under some contractual controversy. But the Latvian's move to Zalgiris did little to stop the hemorrhaging.
The team looked out of synch and tired throughout and were down by 19 at halftime. Making only 6 of their 22 attempted 3-pointers and shooting 66 percent from the free-throw line sealed their fate.
"I take all the blame because we've lost tonight. I didn't get my team ready for this game. Zalgiris had a psychological breakdown and we have to overcome it," said Bagatskis after his Euroleague coaching debut.
While both teams are out of the Euroleague competition, the two Lithuanian sides are heading in two different directions.
For the first time, Lietuvos Rytas' exit from the Euroleague scene was a tighter affair. With the top two teams of each group progressing to the Final Four, they were still in the running after four games in the Top 16. But a smaller than necessary margin of victory against TAU Ceramica meant there was nothing but pride to play for in their March 29 match against GHP Bamberg in Germany.
With an amazing performance against Zalgiris the week before, no one knew what to expect in an otherwise meaningless game. But Rytas showed their character with a solid 72 's 56 victory. Australian Matthew Nielsen had a game high 21 points and American Fred House added 18 points and 9 rebounds. Lietuvos Rytas finished third in their group with a 3 's 3 record behind TAU Ceramica and CSKA Moscow.
"We definitely deserved this victory. We knew we had to compete until the end of the game, regardless if it means something in the standings or not," said Lietuvos Rytas head coach Neven Spahija.
Zalgiris and Lietuvos Rytas will now focus on the LKL championship and the SEB Baltic Basketball League, where the two remain undefeated. Zalgiris will look to inflict a touch of their own revenge when the teams likely meet at the Final 6 of the BBL to crown the Baltic champions. The competition will take place in Tallinn beginning on April 14 and will culminate in the championship game on April 16.