Future stars: The fans are enjoyed some of the best young players battle it out in Latvia.
RIGA - After a strong start, Latvia has faltered, but Lithuania is continuing its strong run at the (International Basketball Federation) U19 World Championship, currently taking place in Latvia. Beginning last Thursday, Latvia and Lithuania both navigated Group play with two win – one loss records to make it through to the tournament’s last 12, which began on Monday in Riga. This, however, is where Latvia’s tournament came to an end, while Lithuania has been able to cruise into the quarterfinals, beginning in Arena Riga on Friday.
Playing their group games in the seaside resort town of Liepaja, Lithuanian players could have been mistaken for thinking that they were playing at home, thanks to the hordes of fans who made the short journey across the border to support the future of their men’s game.
Lithuania was full of confidence going into this tournament and with good reason, having beaten tournament favorites USA in a friendly match two days out from the beginning of the tournament. They were brought back down to earth rapidly, however, as 17-year-old sensation Dario Saric led the Croatians to an 88-75 shock victory. Lithuania’s own superstar and recent NBA draftee, Jonas Valanciunas, was efficient for the Lithuanians but without support similar to that received by Saric, Valanciunas was powerless to deliver the result his team’s fans had come to expect.
However, the green machine recovered quickly and an evening later they were back to their best, tearing apart a hapless Korean side, 117-64. It was a similar scenario in their final group game against Canada, with Valanciunas happy to play a cameo role and rest for the big games ahead as his teammates demoralized Canada, 111-68.
Up in Valmiera, tickets to the basketball games were hard to come by with sell-out crowds welcoming Latvia for all three of their pool matches. The 15th ranked Latvians would not disappoint, opening their account with a historical 85-67 win over Chinese Taipei.
The win over Chinese Taipei was just an entree for what would unfold an evening later, as the heavily favored Australians were forced to take on the role of bridesmaid as Latvia enjoyed another night in the limelight, knocking over the Oceania champions, 78-68.
Reality would kick in an evening later, however, as Argentina delivered the Latvians a timely reality check. After being recently drafted by the NBA team the San Antonio Spurs, Davis Bertans came into this tournament with big pressure on his young shoulders. The pressure was showing against Argentina, with the nervous small forward missing open shots and regularly turning the ball over as he slumped to forgettable figures that read three-from-19 field goals and 0-from-11 three-point attempts. With Bertans misfiring, Latvia lacked the forces to stop Argentina, who were evidently jubilant with the 69-62 victory, following an indifferent start to the tournament for the South American powerhouse.
Despite his less than flattering figures to begin the tournament, Ziedonis Jansons found no reason to doubt his sharp shooter, reminding the press following the game that he is still only 18 and is yet to develop the maturity to perform night in, night out.
But in the second round the pressure on Bertans continued to build with every shot missed. In their opening Eighth-Quarter final match with Brazil on Monday, the Latvians were completely outplayed by the South Americans, losing 88-73, meaning they needed to win on Tuesday against Poland to have any chance of advancing to the quarter-finals. But the dream was to come crashing down as the Poles took advantage of the slow starting Latvians to build up a lead that they would sustain for the remainder of the match, eventually winning 86-78. Latvia played their last Eighth-Quarter final match against Russia on Wednesday night, after TBT went to print.
There was no stopping the Lithuanians, however. Easily seeing off Serbia, 71-54, on Monday, the Lithuanians turned around on Tuesday to provide the match of the tournament to date against USA. Trailing by 19, Valanciunas led Lithuania on a comeback, seeing them tie the game with the final basket of regular time. However, overtime belonged to USA as Patric Young stepped up, scoring seven late points to seal the game, 107-105. Lithuania played the early game on Wednesday, barely breaking a sweat in seeing off Egypt, 78-59, sealing their place in the final eight.