GAME OVER: Lithuania’s efforts were good enough to ensure a shot at the Olympics.
KAUNAS - Lithuania has qualified for the men’s basketball Olympic Qualifying Tournament, finishing fifth at the recently completed EuroBasket Championship.
Lithuania hosted the three week championship, which brought together the 24 best men’s basketball teams from across Europe, with the tournament concluding in Kaunas on Sunday, Sept. 18 when Spain beat France in the gold medal match, 98-85.
Earlier in the day Russia picked up bronze, holding off surprise semifinalists Macedonia. Macedonia had a chance to tie the game with less than ten seconds to play, but Damjan Stojanovski would miss an open lay-up, allowing Russia to hold on and win, 72-68.
Despite the loss, Macedonia still caught many others by surprise over the past three weeks, including Lithuania, who they shocked in the quarterfinals.
Lithuania had perhaps been lucky to make it as far as the quarterfinals, emerging from arguably the tougher side of the draw that included eventual finalists France and Spain, runners up at last year’s World Championship Turkey; a German side featuring NBA stars Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman; and Serbia, who Lithuania defeated in the bronze medal match at last year’s World Championship. Their chances had not been helped, as they went into the tournament without injured star Linas Kleiza who last year made the All-Star five at the World Championship.
Yet despite the odds being against them, Lithuania rallied off the deafening support they were receiving from their home fans, getting themselves into a situation where they needed to beat Germany, or lose to them by less than 11 points, in their final second round match to advance to the final eight.
With the fans in Vilnius once more out in full force and voice to support Lithuania in their last game in the city before their team’s tournament either ended or continued in Kaunas, Lithuania would pull out in the final quarter to win, 84-75, ending Germany’s tournament and seeing their own campaign live to see another day.
Confidence was high going to Kaunas as they prepared to take on Macedonia, who had already outdone the expectations of most just by making it to the final eight. Relying heavily on just seven players, it was felt that fatigue would kick in against a Lithuanian side in which nearly the whole bench had being seeing significant court time, leaving the team fresh going into the match-up.
Yet despite being the fresher of the two teams and having a partisan crowd of nearly 15,000 turning up at the recently completed Kauno Arena to support them, the moment looked to have overwhelmed the Lithuanian team. Leading by four points going into the final minute, one got the feeling that Lithuania would be able to get home safely, but Macedonia had different ideas.
With the lead down to two points with 22 seconds remaining, Macedonia’s point guard Bo McCalebb – a naturalized American who carried the team through the tournament despite having no apparent connection to, or knowledge of, Macedonia – looked like he would tie the score, only to miss the lay-up, allowing Darius Songalia to snatch the rebound. But instead of slowing the play down, Songalia panicked, throwing a misdirected pass that was picked up by Macedonia. Eventually the ball would make it into the hands of an unguarded Vlado Ilievski, who would make the biggest shot of his career, not only sinking his three-pointer but also the hopes of an entire nation.
It was indeed a sobering moment following the loss as the crowd inside the Arena and at large outdoor gatherings across the county looked on with expressions of disbelief. In a country where basketball is considered to be a second religion, it was indeed a difficult loss to take with the majority of fans expecting their team to at least make it through to the final four.
Despite the loss, the Lithuanian team had little time to wallow in self-pity, with Slovenia – who had lost to Spain in the day’s earlier semifinal – waiting for them the following the afternoon with a place in the Olympic qualifying tournament still on the line.
It appeared that most Lithuanians had quickly put the disappointment of the loss a day previous behind them, once more turning out in force to support Lithuania as they looked to keep their Olympic dream alive. As an independent country, Lithuania has never missed an Olympic berth in men’s basketball and Mantas Kalnietis was doing his best to make sure he and his teammates would not be the first to miss out, hitting an open three on the fast-break to put Lithuania in front 79-77 with 19 seconds remaining. He would then confirm the win by hitting one of two free throws with three seconds left to play, ending the Olympic aspirations of Slovenia and seeing Lithuania book one of four spots at the Olympic qualifying tournament alongside Greece, Macedonia and Russia. On account of making the final in Lithuania, France and Spain were able to book tickets directly to London.
In their final game of the tournament, Lithuania would play Greece for fifth spot in a game that meant little to both teams, with their Olympic qualifying tournament spots already booked. Similar to their previous two matches, their battle with Greece would once more come down to the wire as Kalnietis again proved to be the man at the clutch, sinking a pair of free throws with 14 seconds remaining to confirm the 73-69 win.
Despite making the Olympic qualifying tournament, there is still a long road ahead for Lithuania with only three of the 12 teams participating in the tournament moving on to London.