GET WELL!: Khalid El-Amin, No. 42 of Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas, received a serious leg injury during the last game of the Top 16 in the Euroleague.
VILNIUS - March 3 was the day when the Euroleague music for Kaunas Zalgiris and Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas died. While Kaunas Zalgiris already had no chance to get into the quarterfinals, Lietuvos Rytas, or just Rytas, as it is called by everyone in Vilnius, had a perfect opportunity to do so: the current Lithuanian champion just needed to win against the current Spanish champion, Vitoria Caja Laboral. Earlier, during the Euroleague’s Top 16 stage, in their home playground in the capital of the Basque country, Caja Laboral was defeated by Rytas 89-86. The decisive match of March 3 was observed by 11,000 screaming spectators in the Vilnius’ Siemens Arena, but Rytas, due to psychological pressure, was just a shadow of what it used to be in the Euroleague’s Top 16.
Rytas led just twice in the game vs. Caja Laboral: 3-2 in the beginning after a 3-point shot by Simas Jasaitis, former player of the Vitoria club, and 43-42, in the beginning of the third quarter after a slam dunk by Aussie Brad Newley of Rytas. The most tragic for Rytas was the first quarter, which finished 16-27. Jonas Valanciunas, the 19-year old center of Rytas, even missed a foul shot, although he scored more than 90 percent of his foul shots in this Euroleague season. The Caja Laboral players – Fernando San Emeterio of the Spanish national team (he, scoring 19 points, was the best on the Basque team on March 3), Marcelinho Huertas of Brazil’s national team, Bosnian Mirza Teletovic, and Senegalese Pape Sow – dictated the game. Rytas rallied from that 11-point deficit in the second quarter mostly due to brilliant defense and assists by Martynas Gecevicius, who is the MVP of Rytas, according to Euroleague statistics, and a bronze medal winner, like Jasaitis, of last year’s world basketball championship (Rytas manages to have just two players of that bronze Lithuanian national team, while Zalgiris, due to a bigger budget, has five). Bosnian Kenan Bajramovic (he was the main scorer for Rytas that day with 14 points) was roaring after his successful attacks like a wild animal and the teams left for a big break after the first half, with Caja ahead 40-39. The final quarter still promised intrigue: it was 60-60 after a 3-point shot by American D.J. Strawberry, of Rytas.
However, the rest of the game was a catastrophe with the final result 68-77 (16-27, 23-13, 16-18, 13-19).
As if such a tragedy was not enough suffering for Vilnius fans, Khalid El-Amin, point guard of Rytas, got a leg injury during the last minute of the game. His input into the successful game of Rytas in the Top 16 stage of Euroleague was enormous. El-Amin got an ovation in Siemens Arena when his teammates carried him on their arms out of the arena. Actually, it was probably a mistake by Aleksandar Trifunovic, coach of Rytas, to keep D.J. Strawberry in instead of El-Amin as the main point guard in the match of March 3. El-Amin appeared just episodically during the game and scored just four points. The injury is serious and this basketball season for El-Amin is over. It is questionable whether this 178 centimeter-tall father of six children will ever play again. Now El-Amin has to solve a dilemma: to undergo surgery in Lithuania, or go to his native USA for it.
After the game, a press conference by two coaches from Serbia, Trifunovic of Rytas and Dusko Ivanovic of Caja Laboral, was held. “We were just one ball, one game away from the quarterfinals,” Trifunovic cried. “The Vilnius team is very good, but we deserved the victory,” Ivanovic said.
Regardless, some Lithuanians got into the quarterfinals: Robertas Javtokas, the center of Valencia Power Electronics, as well as Rimantas Kaukenas and Ksystof Lavrinovic of Siena Montepaschi will continue to fight for the champion’s title. On the eve of the Top 16 stage, Sarunas Jasikevicius made a mistake by leaving Rytas and joining another Lithuanian, Darjus Lavrinovic, at Istanbul Fenerbahce. Jasikevicius thought that it would give him a better chance to get into the Euroleague’s quarterfinals, but on March 3, Javtokas’ team deprived Fenerbahce of such an honor by beating the Turkish club 82-68 in Valencia.