GOLDEN YOUTH: On July 11, during the celebration in the main square of Vilnius’ Old Town, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite congratulated the world champions, and especially Jonas Valanciunas, the center of the Lithuanian U-19 national team who will play the next season for Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas and will join the Toronto Raptors afterwards.
RIGA - Jonas Valanciunas has sent Lithuania into party mode, leading his country’s U19 basketball team to gold medal glory at the FIBA (Federation International Basketball) U19 World Championship, held in Latvia over the past fortnight. In front of 9,000 screaming, frenzied Lithuanians on Sunday afternoon, Valanciunas produced another world beating effort, scoring 36 points on the way to leading Lithuania to an 85-67 victory over Serbia in the tournament’s gold medal match.
Valanciunas, who was recently drafted fifth overall by the Toronto Raptors in the NBA (National Basketball Association) stood head and shoulders above his opponents in Latvia – both figuratively and literally – leading the tournament in both points and rebounds, averaging 23 and 13.9, respectively. His performances were not only enough to earn him a spot in the tournament All-star five, but also the award for tournament MVP with no one else coming close to rivaling him.
On the road to the finals, Lithuania began their tournament badly, with complacency proving costly as they were blindsided by a young Croatian side, losing 88-75 in their first match of the tournament. But the loss stirred the Lithuanians to life, who played with new resolve, going undefeated through the remainder of pool play.
It was a similar story in the second round, with the Lithuanian’s only loss coming at the hands of USA in a match which was being coined as a prelude to the final. Playing without starting point guard Vytenis Cizauskas, Lithuania struggled for direction, but would still manage to push the Americans to overtime where they would eventually lose out.
In their quarter-final match-up against Poland, the Poles were able to contain Valanciunas in the early stages, but when they were forced to sub off tiring big man Przemyslaw Karnowski, Valanciunas was allowed to cut loose, ending the game with 26 points and 24 rebounds to propel Lithuania into the semifinals.
It was also at the quarter-final stage that the wheels came off the wagon of arguably Lithuania’s greatest threat for the gold medal, USA. Playing against Russia, USA would fail to hit one three pointer all night, while Vladislav Trushkin and Dmitry Kulagin combined for eight three pointers between them to hand the Americans a shock early exit.
Russia would then meet Lithuania in the semifinals, but Russian Head Coach Mikhail Soloviev could only watch on in awe as Cizauskas and Valanciunas combined to systematically pull the Russians apart in a near perfect half of basketball. In the first half alone, Valanciunas would nearly out-rebound the entire Russian team with nine personal rebounds while the entire Russian lineup could only manage 12. Trailing by 27 points at the half, Kulagin gave the Russians a glimmer of hope in the second half as Lithuania already appeared to be thinking ahead to the final, but ultimately the first half deficit would prove too big to overcome as Lithuania prevailed 85-68 to move on to Sunday’s gold medal match.
In front of a sellout crowd, Lithuania players could have been mistaken for thinking they were playing at home, with over 9,000 of the 10,000 seats occupied by Lithuanians.
Despite the odds against them, Serbia did their best to keep the crowd muted with the score tied at 44 midway through the third quarter. But like any good leader should, Valanciunas stepped up to the mark, combining with Cizauskas to send Lithuania on an 18-3 run to finish the third quarter and ultimately end the game with 10 minutes still to play.
For Valanciunas the real test now begins as he looks ahead to the remainder of summer. In just over six weeks time, he is expected to be playing in the senior men’s European Championships, at home in Lithuania. But for right now, Valanciunas’ “only thought is on celebrating.”
Hosts Latvia finished further back in the field. but should not be too disappointed with their loss to Brazil in the final game seeing them finish the competition in 10th position.