IT’S DONE: After a tough season, Zalgiras held together playing well enough to repeat as champs.
SIAULIAI - Zalgiris has become the first team in the history of the Baltic Basketball League (BBL) to win the tournament for three consecutive years, defeating Lietuvos Rytas 74-70 in a tense conclusion to the Baltic-wide basketball tournament on Sunday afternoon.
Following a below-par season and the loss of key players in Sonny Weems and DeJuan Collins, Zalgiris’ controversial team owner, Vladimir Romanov, finally had something to smile about at Siauliai Arena on Sunday afternoon as the green-and-whites withstood a late scoring flurry from Lietuvos Rytas’ Tyrese Rice to claim their second title of the season, following on from their victory over Pieno Zvaigzdes in the final of the Lithuanian Cup (LKF Cup) back in February.
Trailing by eight points following a Predrag Samardziski lay-up with under a minute to play in the first quarter, the turning point for Zalgiris came soon after when Marko Popovic sank a pair of free-throws to start an 18-1 scoring run that saw the eight-point deficit converted into a seven-point lead with under four minutes gone in the second frame.
With Lietuvos Rytas’ in-form playmaker, Renaldas Seibutis, watching from the bench for a second consecutive night, the red-and-black’s backcourt was struggling to contain Mantas Kalnietis, who was instrumental in the scoring run, earning himself the game’s MVP honors for his efforts.
The Lithuanian national team guard ended the game with a team-high 19 points on six-for-nine shooting from the field. Forced to call a timeout halfway through the second quarter, Lietuvos Rytas finally ended their scoring drought, going into damage control to assure that the gap remained at eight points at half time.
For the second time in a matter of weeks – the previous time being against Milan in the Eurocup semifinals – young superstar center Jonas Valanciunas went missing in action in an important game, finding himself completely neutralized under the hoop by his national squad teammate Robertas Javtokas.
With Valanciunas resigned to looking on from the bench, the Macedonian center Samardziski was a standout in his place, scoring a quick five points midway through the third quarter to bring the deficit back down to three.
Despite his hot hand and the fact he was at the time leading his team’s scoring with 15 points, Aleksandr Dzikic opted to bench the big man and bring Valanciunas back into the game. Valanciunas gained the lead back for his team momentarily on a dunk, but it went as fast as it had come as Popovic and Mindaugas Kuzminskas sank back-to-back threes to steady the Zalgiris ship and help put their team back up by seven.
Going into the final four-and-a-half minutes and trailing by 14 points, the game looked beyond reach for Lietuvos Rytas, but Tyrese Rice offered a slight glimmer of hope for the small entourage of fans who had made the trip from Vilnius to Siauliai, lighting up with 10 points in the last three-and-a-half-minutes to bring his team within reach of a seemingly improbable victory.
However, his late heroics were not quite enough with Vilmantas Dilys missing a three-point attempt with seven seconds on the clock to bring the deficit back to a point.
Earlier in the day VEF Riga claimed the bronze medal on the back of 24 points from their Lithuanian center Antanas Kavaliauskas as they defeated the tournament hosts, Siauliai, 92-75. The game followed a similar tone to the gold medal game as Siauliai broke away to an early lead, only to be reeled in and overtaken in the second quarter.
A day previous both Siauliai and VEF had been easily brushed aside in the semi-finals by Zalgiris and Lietuvos Rytas, respectively. In the first semi-final Paulius Jankunas lead the rout for Zalgiris, scoring 21 points in a 117-65 victory over Siauliai, whilst in the second semi, young guard Dovydas Redikas produced his most significant performance of the season, picking up 16 points as Lietuvos Rytas downed VEF, 89-61.
Lietuvos Rytas had little time to reflect on the gold medal game loss, needing to turn around to last night play their VTB League semi-final clash against tournament favorites CSKA Moscow. The winner of that game will this evening play the winner of the second semi-final between Unics Kazan and Lokomotiv, whilst the two losers square off in the bronze medal game.
The tournament will bring to an end a busy three weeks for the Lithuanian club, which has participated in three Final Four tournaments, as well as defeated Siauliai in a home-and-away two-game series to qualify for the final series in the Lithuanian domestic league (LKL).
There they will meet the winner of the second semi-final series between Zalgiris and Rudupis which also got underway last night after TBT had gone to press.