VILNIUS - The Lithuanian men's basketball team lost to Argentina 88-87 and beat Poland 99-71in Madrid over the weekend, just days after finishing first in the second annual Super Federation Cup held in Vilnius. By beating Russia 77 's 61 on Aug. 2, Lithuania came out on top with Israel finishing second, followed by Russia and then Senegal. The games in Spain and the three day tournament of friendlies in Vilnius were a tune-up for the upcoming World Basketball Championships in Japan.
Lithuania looked to be improving as a team, coming within one point of beating Argentina, the 2004 Olympic Basketball Champions, and did not lose a game in Vilnius, beating Israel 87-67 on Aug. 1, followed by a thrashing of Senegal on the following day, 96-51, and the victory over Russia.
"I'm happy with the way we played but we'll need to improve over the next couple weeks," Lithuania's national head coach, Antanas Sireika, said after the Russia game.
The Lithuanians were in terrible form only days before the tournament when they lost against lowly Senegal. Even when the tournament began they still appeared a bit lethargic. Against Israel, they played hard enough to win, but failed to blow away a clearly outmanned side and allowed their opponents to stay in the game. When they came up against Senegal, however, the story changed. Lithuania opened a huge half time lead and did not let up. It was the type of performance you'd expect from a team which has three players with NBA experience and a number of international stars.
The final game against Russia was a tight affair for the first 20 minutes. By halftime the score was 38 's 32. During the break, the Lithuanian under-18 youth team was honored for their silver medal placing in the European championships where they lost 72-77 against France in the gold medal game in Greece on July 27. New Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas also recognized the team and congratulated the boys in front of a near capacity crowd. This same group of players won the 2004 Under-16 European Championship.
After the ceremonies, the Lithuanians came out determined and began to outclass their opponents, to the extreme delight of the crowd. It was an incredible atmosphere for a friendly. Every basket was met with applause and every whistle against the home side derided. Linas Kleiza led all scorers with 14 points.
Lithuania will now go on to Korea, their last stop before Japan and the World Championships. In Korea, one of their friendly opponents will be the United States, who is looking determined to get back on top of the world basketball scene after a series of humiliating defeats in the Athens Olympics and 2002 World Championships on their home turf. With one of the top coaches in basketball calling the shots and a side that has practiced together for over a month, all bets are on the Americans to take back the world basketball title they last held in 1998.
Another contender is Argentina, which has beaten team U.S.A. on a few occasions in recent years. Greece, the reigning 2005 European Champions, should also do well and France could be the dark horse of the tournament with a few key players in America's National Basketball Association (NBA).
For the Lithuanian side, there needs to be significant progress in order for them to bring back gold. With their top point guard and emotional leader, Sarunas Jasikevicius, not playing in the tournament, they are without a key player who was instrumental in their 2003 European Championship triumph. His loss may be irreplaceable considering they will lack the service of a tried and tested point guard. Another concern is the play of Arvydas Macijauskas, who is back from a terrible year in the NBA, where he played only sparingly. Without much competitive basketball over the past 11 months, Macijauskas has been struggling. He will need to step up for the Lithuanians to have a chance. Other players being depended on for a big tournament are Darius Songaila and Kleiza. Both forwards are in the NBA and will need to play hard on both sides of the court. And look for Darius and Ksystof Lavrinovic, twin brothers, to contribute as well, as center is one of the strongest positions for the side.
The Basketball World Championships, held every four years, start on Aug. 19 when Lithuania begins with a game against Turkey. Brazil, Australia, Qatar, and Greece are the other teams which round out group C. The top four teams go to the next round. The tournament finale will be held on Sept. 3.